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Just four months ago, on the fourth anniversary of 9-11, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a message to New Yorkers: Trust us.
At the time, the agency was locked in a debate with dozens of people who live and work in Lower Manhattan over a proposal to test for toxic dust from the World Trade Center disaster. It was struggling to live down the perception it had failed in its mission to protect New Yorkers (see "Dusted," September 6ï¿½13). And so, back then, the official word was progressï¿½how the EPA was listening to its critics, for example, and doing what it takes to make downtown safe.
Now, the agency is sending a different message to New Yorkers: Screw you.
On November 29, the EPA announced its final plan to test for and clean up lingering Trade Center dustï¿½a $7 million effort limited to residences below Canal Street. With this plan, the agency took a sudden turn, scaling back an earlier version, tossing advice from its expert panel, and nixing nearly every promise to the downtown community. Now, the plan no longer extends to Houston Street and over to Brooklyn. It no longer includes workplaces, nor alternative sampling methods. About the only thing it does is to test for such toxins as asbestos, lead, and fiberglass.
At the EPA panel's final hear-ing last Tuesday, dozens of residents, office workers, and activists showed up in protest. They vowed not to participate in the plan and scolded the agency for failing to do its job. One woman living near ground zero presented the EPA with a piece of coal; another offered a blackened air filter from her home. A first responder who had sifted through the rubble for days ticked off his 9-11ï¿½related illnesses and produced 12 prescription vials, pounding each on the table.
"This is from exposure to that dust," he said, adding, "we New Yorkers deserve better."
Right after the terrorist attacks, the EPA told New Yorkers conditions were safe when in fact they were not. Four years later, thousands of people have gotten sick, and thousands more remember how the dust blanketed their neighborhoods. Critics charge the EPA has downplayed risks and conveyed false assurances.
Says Robert Gulack, whose downtown office at the Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to be tested for 9-11ï¿½related contamination, "This is absolutely consistent with a pattern, so I'm not at all surprised."
As far back as the winter of 2002, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan, was documenting how the EPA had misled the public in a critical white paper. A freedom of information request from the New York Environmental Law and Justice project yielded 800 pages of EPA sampling results revealing that asbestos and other toxins exceeded the threshold for safety.
Around the same time, Nadler convinced the EPA ombudsman to hold two hearings into the agency's actions. EPA officials responded by saying they weren't responsible for indoor air quality; they later dismantled the watchdog's office.
Then in August 2003, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing 165-page report disclosing some disconcerting factsï¿½that the White House had pressured the EPA to sanitize its warnings around ground zero, for instance. It took the agency to task for a 2002 cleanup program that had failed to meet "minimum criteria for protecting human health." The report said this first effort had improperly limited its geographic scope, had excluded workplaces, and had used faulty methods. In short, as one congressional aide explains, the 2002 program "was meant to support the EPA's contention that there was nothing for people to worry about."
Now New Yorkers are left with a similarly ineffectual program, one that ignores Chinatown and Brooklyn, and ignores the workplacesï¿½the same flaws laid out by the inspector general.
And as if true to form, the EPA has shut down the only venue left calling attention to the toxic dust: its expert panel. Created under pressure from Senator Hillary Clinton, the panel has grown increasingly critical of the agency over the past 20 months. Last week, not one panelist supported the final plan.
Member Dave Newman, of the New York Committee for Occu-pational Safety and Health, says the panel amounts to a political liability be-cause "it provided a for- um for discussion of issues the EPA would prefer not to discuss."
Bigger voices than his agree. At a December 9 press event, Senator Clinton offered her toughest words yet, calling the EPA's actions "negligence." She added, "It continues a pattern of behavior by this administration that is inexcusable."
Nadler puts it more bluntly:
"It's cover up contamination. Ignore it. And by the time people's illnesses become evident, this administration will be long gone."
EPA officials, not surprisingly, dismiss talk of a cover-up. Timothy Oppelt, of the agency's Office of Research and Development, which convened the expert panel and created the plan, has heard all the suggestions that "there is some kind of cover-up and conspiracy and it's orchestrated by the highest levels of federal government." He says the agency's actions come from "the work of career folks," like him.
In June, he recounts, when officials released the comprehensive sampling plan, they warned they could only implement it by developing a so-called signature, or marker of Trade Center dust. But in October, an independent review panel rejected the proposed signature, consisting of slag wool, mostly, an insulation used in the towers. Hence the final plan, which limits the cleanup to downtown neighborhoods. And since the panel was nearing the end of its two-year time limit, the agency disbanded it.
"We had no choice but to fall back to this second option," Oppelt says.
Critics see room for compromise, but don't expect it. Last summer, Clinton's office arranged a negotiation session between the EPA, panelists, and critics. A day before a September meeting, EPA officials called Clinton's office and explained that, according to agency lawyers, they could only discuss contamination proven to have come from the Trade Center. Most items on the agenda, in other words, were off the table.
On November 22, Clinton and Nadler wrote to Stephen Johnson, the EPA commissioner, renewing the call for compromise. One week later, the EPA released its final plan.
"For the life of me," Clinton has said, "I don't understand why the EPA will not do the right and smart thing in helping us reach that kind of resolution."
Oppelt says he and his EPA colleagues "were ready to meet with Senator Clinton and talk," but then the proposed signature unraveled. He has agreed to push for more work on developing the slag wool marker, which he calls "a very critical piece." If the agency has a "defensible" signature, he suggests, it might be able to expand its current plan. But for now, he says, "we're moving forward."
So are critics. Last week, Clinton and Nadler asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to examine the EPA's "failure to establish an effective, science-based testing and cleanup plan." At the very least, they hope a GAO investigation keeps the issue from being swept under the rug.
"Nobody is walking away from this issue," says Kimberly Flynn, of 9/11 Environmental Action. "Only the EPA is walking away."
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