(Photo by Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com)
It seems the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done it again, offering yet another false assurance to New Yorkers about fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At least, that’s how many people who live and work in downtown Manhattan have come to view the agency’s latest announcement. This afternoon, the EPA unveiled what it is calling the “final phase” in its response to the 9/11 environmental fallout—a new plan to test for toxic dust from the World Trade Center disaster.
The plan isn’t exactly new, however. Indeed, it mirrors a proposal the EPA had first announced in November 2005, one that residents, office workers, and activists had panned as inadequate. Back then, the agency had released what was billed as the final plan to test for and clean up lingering Trade Center dust—a $7 million effort limited to residences below Canal Street. With that plan, the agency had taken a sudden turn after months of debate on the matter, scaling back an earlier version, tossing advice from its expert panel and nixing nearly every promise to the downtown community.
Hours before the agency’s announcement today, activists long bent on pushing the EPA to do the right thing and clean up downtown were gearing up for the worst. And they pretty much got it. Already, critics have ticked off the same complaints about this new plan that they had ticked off before: It is underfunded (at $7 million, again); it abides by an arbitrary geographic boundary (south of Canal Street and west of Allen Street, again); and it remains limited to residences (excluding workplaces unless a landlord consents, again). About the only thing the new plan does is to test for such toxins as fiberglass, asbestos, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. EPA officials say they will give priority to those who live or work in buildings located closest to the World Trade Center site; residents and landlords will have two months beginning in January to register for the program.
As far as critics are concerned, the agency’s new plan amounts to an exercise in futility.
“This plan is clearly unacceptable,” says Kimberly Flynn, of the 9/11 Environmental Action, one of the most active groups on the issue. Flynn points out that the current plan is effectively the same one rejected by not just the agency’s expert panel, but also the New York City Council and all three Lower Manhattan community boards. “The EPA has had a year to enact the recommendations of the community,” she says, “and the EPA has not done so. And so here we are. We’re stuck with a poor plan.”
In announcing the plan, EPA officials acknowledged that not much had changed about the clean up program in the past 12 months. They explained the year-long delay in implementing the program to attempts to further develop a so-called signature, or marker of Trade Center dust. Officials had decided to re-examine the proposed signature, consisting of slag wool, mostly, an insulation used in the towers. But that effort failed. So, as George Gray, of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, put it in a telephone conference call with local reporters on Wednesday, “We believe it’s now time to implement this plan of action.” Though Gray made a point to stress that, “The vast majority of residences and commercial spaces have been repeatedly cleaned and the amount of lingering dust is likely small, so the potential for exposure is likely small.”
Downtown activists see things differently. “It’s yet another false assurance following all the other false assurances we’ve had over the years,” charges Suzanne Mattei, of the Sierra Club, whose New York City offices are located on John Street, just blocks from where the twin towers once stood.
Right after the terrorist attacks, the EPA told New Yorkers conditions were safe when in fact they were not. Five years later, thousands of people have gotten sick, and thousands more remember how the dust blanketed their neighborhoods. The growing number of blood cell cancers among rescue and recovery workers who shifted through rubble at the Trade Center site has some scientists talking about the beginnings of a 9/11 cancer cluster.
EPA officials insist that this final plan is just that, the last of a series of attempts meant to give people who live and work downtown some “peace of mind.” Said Alan Steinberg, the EPA regional administrator, during the press call: “I understand the uncertainties and the frustration that have resulted from the aftermath of 9/11. All I can say is that we believe we’ve acted in a very deliberative and considerate way to address the concerns.”
That, of course, remains up for debate. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who represents ground zero and who has led the fight to hold the EPA accountable for its response to the 9/11 fallout, suggested the debate wasn’t over yet when he blasted the agency for its weak program, which he described as “another slap in the face to the residents and workers of Lower Manhattan. Nadler made sure to note the change in political power in Congress come January, vowing, “A Democratic Congress will hold the EPA accountable.”
In other words, stay tuned.