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Context of 'March 11, 2003: EPA Refuses to Clean Firehouses near Ground Zero'

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The City of New York hires LZA Associates and Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers to put together a team of engineers and contractors to inspect the World Trade Center and surrounding structures in order to help ensure the safety of rescue workers. (Powell 11/2001)

Several government experts testify at a New York City Council meeting on environmental conditions following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. (Cardwell 11/1/2001) Kathleen Callahan, deputy regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), insists that New Yorkers living and working near the World Trade Center site are not in danger. “The vast majority of our tests find levels of these contaminants pose no significant long term health risks to residents, business employees and visitors beyond Ground Zero,” she says, repeating what earlier EPA statements have asserted. Downplaying the danger of those areas where higher asbestos levels have been found, she states—falsely (see April 18, 1989) (see October 3, 2001-March 1, 2004) —that “EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are set many times below the level at which you would expect health impacts.” She advises New Yorkers who live or work in the affected areas to “follow the recommendations of the New York City Departments of Health and Environmental Protection on how to clean up properly (see September 17, 2001).” (Environmental Protection Agency 11/1/2001) Another expert, Dr. Jessica Leighton, assistant city health commissioner for environmental risk assessment, similarly states that people living and working in Lower Manhattan have little to worry about. She says in response to a question whether or not “people are safe at the present level” of contamination: “As far as the science has shown us right now, that is absolutely correct.” Like Callahan, she claims that EPA standards are overly protective. “The standards or tolerance levels that are being used are very conservative,” she claims. “For example, for asbestos, we are using the standard that is used for indoor air quality for reentry into a school after asbestos removal, which is the most stringent standard, as the tolerance level or standard for outdoor air quality in the residential areas. This is also true for other substances, such as dioxins, identified at the perimeter of the site…. Moreover, these standards have been designed to include many safety factors so that acceptable levels of exposure are far below the levels at which health effects are expected to occur.” (New York City Department of Health 11/1/2001) Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, questions the accuracy of Leighton’s and Callahan’s statements and accuses them of withholding some test results. (Cardwell 11/1/2001) Kathryn Freed, a New York City Council Member who represents Lower Manhattan, said she was not convinced by agency assurances, noting that firemen are already showing symptoms of emphysema, a terminal disease for which there is no cure. “Just because it doesn’t reach a certain level is really irrelevant when people are sick,” says Marc Ameruso, a member of the area’s community board. (Cardwell 11/1/2001)

Kathleen Callahan, deputy regional director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, testifies before the joint New York State Assembly Committees on Environmental Conservation, Health, and Labor. She reiterates past EPA assertions that WTC contaminants pose no long term risks to local residents. “We’ve tested for the presence of pollutants such as asbestos, fine particulate matter, lead, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, benzene, metals, PCBs and other chemicals and substances that could pose a threat to the public and workers at the site,” she says. “Fortunately, the vast majority of our tests find levels of these contaminants that pose no significant long term health risks to residents, business employees and visitors beyond Ground Zero. And despite recent press accounts which suggest otherwise, these findings have not changed. In fact, environmental conditions off the site have improved in recent weeks.” Callahan also says that people concerned about contamination in their homes “should follow the recommendations of the New York City Departments of Health and Environmental Protection on how to clean up properly” (see September 17, 2001). (Environmental Protection Agency 11/1/2001)

The EPA’s regional office in New York announces that the agency will assume responsibility for testing and cleaning residences south of Canal, Allen, and Pike Streets in Manhattan for asbestos contamination—if requested by the resident. The EPA claims the decision was made in order to calm residents’ fears, and that decontamination is not necessary. “While the scientific data about any immediate health risks from indoor air is very reassuring, people should not have to live with uncertainty about their futures,” says Jane Kenny, EPA regional administrator. “There is no emergency here.” (Carlton 5/9/2002 pdf file; Gittrich 5/9/2002 pdf file) Similarly, Mary Mears, spokeswoman for Region II of the EPA, states, “This is to assuage concerns from residents in Lower Manhattan who continue to have concerns over air in their apartments.” (United Press International 5/9/2002)
Criticisms of the EPA's volunteer cleanup program -
bullet The EPA does not include other areas like Brooklyn, which was in the direct path of the September 11 smoke plume (see September 12, 2001), or Chinatown, whose residents have also complained of ailments they attribute to WTC contamination. (Casimir 5/20/2002 pdf file; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file)
bullet The EPA does not acknowledge that there is a public health emergency
bullet The program is voluntary.
bullet The EPA program targets asbestos, although the agency will also randomly test for other toxins to determine if additional measures should be taken. “We will test for asbestos in air. This is the substance of greatest concern, and air is the pathway of exposure. By cleaning up the dust, many other substances will also be removed,” an EPA public notice explains. (Environmental Protection Agency 8/4/2003) However according to Cate Jenkins, “too few homes [are sampled] to have any statistical power to establish that these substances are not occurring elsewhere.” (Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) A panel of experts convened by the EPA in October will agree, and suggest that the EPA conduct tests for additional toxins (see Mid-October 2002).
bullet The program is limited to private residences. Office buildings, the common areas of apartment buildings, stores and restaurants are not eligible for the program. (New York Daily News 10/29/2002)
bullet Only apartments which appear upon visual inspection to be contaminated will qualify for cleaning. (Lustgarten 8/15/2003)
bullet The plan does not require that all apartments in a building be evacuated and cleaned—just those whose residents have filed requests. Consequently, recontamination and cross-contamination will occur from ventilation systems connecting cleaned and uncleaned apartments and from dust tracked in on residents’ shoes and clothing. (Lustgarten 8/15/2003)

A panel of experts convene for two days, at the request of the EPA, and make recommendations for the EPA’s indoor cleanup program (see May 8, 2002) in Manhattan. The panel suggests expanding the testing to “include a wider array of toxic contaminants;” lowering “the EPA’s proposed danger benchmarks to take into account more vulnerable populations, such as children;” and establishing “safety standards for both residential and commercial buildings in Lower Manhattan.” (New York Daily News 10/29/2002)

Kathleen Callahan, an EPA assistant regional administrator, rejects the New York City firefighters union’s request to expand the EPA’s cleanup program (see May 8, 2002) for residential spaces in Lower Manhattan to four firehouses in Lower Manhattan. “We have not undertaken any cleanup of firehouses,” Callahan explains at an environmental symposium at Fordham University. “The program that we have is strictly residential and therefore, we would not do firehouses.” (Infinity Broadcasting Corp 3/12/2003)


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