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Violation Delays WTC Study: Contract award was flawed, agency says
By Laurie Garrett, Newsday Staff Writer, January 8, 2003

A long-term health study of 200,000 people who lived or worked near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 is in limbo. The federal government's General Accounting Office has determined that the contract process violated federal regulations.

Last week the GAO ordered the federal agency responsible for designing and overseeing the project to reopen the bidding, a move expected to lead to delays in learning if New Yorkers experienced health problems as a result of inhaling debris from the World Trade Center collapse.

The Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene designed the outlines of the long-term study early last year, calling for the inclusion of 100,000 people who lived or worked inside a building that sustained physical damage on Sept. 11, and another 100,000 who lived or worked that day in lower Manhattan, below Canal Street. The Federal Emergency Management Agency allotted $20 million for the study.

Several companies offered bids, and those from Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina and NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago received roughly equal technical merit appraisals. RTI's bid was for $15.8 million; NORC offered two plans, with price tags of $11 million and $13 million.

In late September, the toxic-substances agency announced it was awarding the contract to the higher bidder, RTI. "I was in a cab on the way to the airport when I got the call, telling me the contract was going to RTI for a bid 40 percent above ours," NORC president Craig Koelen said in an interview. "That is enough of a difference that I felt we had a reason to ask, 'Was this a rational process?'"

In October, NORC appealed to the GAO. Federal agencies are required to consider "best value analysis," meaning that when bids are of roughly equal technical merit, the contract should go to the lower bid. Last week the GAO ruled the guidelines had been violated. "The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is working with the General Accounting Office and the Department of Health and Human Services to come to a resolution of the matter," said Paula Stevens, a spokeswoman for the toxic-substances agency. She declined to comment further.

Sources told Newsday the survey will be delayed by at least three to four months. "Because of the importance of this project, the work is under way," RTI spokesman Reid Maness said in an interview. " ... we really want to make sure that the project gets off to a good start, no matter who ends up carrying it forward."

Several studies have found that "World Trade Center Cough" had emerged in rescue workers, fire fighters and Ground Zero construction personnel, and respiratory problems had been documented in more than half the rescue teams from around the country that aided Ground Zero operations.

Additionally, Environmental Protection Agency researchers recently documented a rodent equivalent of WTC cough produced in lab mice exposed to dust collected from the Ground Zero area on Sept. 12 and 13, 2001.

The study design calls for New Yorkers to review the eligibility criteria and, if they believe they fit, to file their names with the registry. Each will be contacted, asked to provide information about his or her residency, employment, proximity to Ground Zero in the fall of 2001 and health status. Each will be questioned at intervals over subsequent years. Another approach, requiring participants' pay stubs, mail and other evidence of employment or residence in the area on Sept. 11, would bolster the study's validity but also its cost.

"My hope is that CDC and ATSDR will take this opportunity to fix the flaws in the study's design," City Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) said in an interview. "A health study of this kind simply cannot be complete unless it includes people in downtown Brooklyn and the surrounding areas."

Last month, the EPA issued a report that noted that large, heavy particles of debris fell immediately around Ground Zero, but that finer, lighter particles were carried to Brooklyn. "The fact this study is on hold is actually helpful because it will force re-examination of the whole problem," said Councilman Bill de Blasio, whose Brooklyn district includes Fort Hamilton.

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