Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Still in the dark over WTC dust
By Juan Gonzales, New York Daily News, September 11, 2003

Two years after the collapse of the World Trade Center, health officials still have no idea whether most of lower Manhattan's commercial buildings have been properly cleaned.

In February 2002, the city Department of Environmental Protection asked owners of 1,073 residential and commercial buildings near Ground Zero to furnish reports of all post-9/11 environmental tests and cleanup work.

The city received responses from only 354 buildings, DEP spokesman Charles Sturcken said yesterday. Of those, 31 buildings - nearly 10% - reported hazardous asbestos levels that required professional abatement.

But two-thirds of building owners did not even reply - and 18 months later, the city has not followed up.

The lack of data is especially important now that the federal Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general has criticized the EPA for misleading the public about air quality downtown after the attack.

In a report issued last month, Inspector General Nikki Tinsley directed the EPA to "address potential contamination in workspaces in lower Manhattan."

Tinsley, who has criticized the agency's voluntary residential cleanup as inadequate, urged the EPA to consider systematically testing and cleaning about 1,500 commercial buildings below Canal St.

"Any indoor spaces contaminated with WTC dust that have not been cleaned using proper techniques will likely remain contaminated," Tinsley warned.

Even in buildings where owners conducted professional cleanups, removing toxic WTC dust has sometimes proved difficult.

At least three buildings adjacent to Ground Zero, for example, were so contaminated they have yet to reopen.

Owners of the 40-story Deutsche Bank building, immediately south of the WTC site, and Fitterman Hall, a 15-story CUNY classroom building, insist they cannot be cleaned and should be destroyed. Insurance companies are disputing those claims.

Meanwhile, tests at the block-long post office at 90 Church St., as well as the Deutsche Bank and Fitterman Hall, detected hazardous levels of asbestos, mercury, dioxins and other toxic materials that required repeated cleanings.

High asbestos levels also have been found in the dust of at least two office buildings farther from Ground Zero.

Take 19 Rector St., a 34-story building five blocks south of Ground Zero, that reportedly was cleaned right after 9/11.

In February, tests conducted by the Civil Service Employees Association in the second-floor offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles offices revealed 8% asbestos in dust inside one of the window air conditioners - considerably higher than the 1% threshold city and federal health officials use to trigger a professional cleanup.

Persistent problems

State officials replaced the air conditioners and cleaned the windows at 19 Rector St.

Similar problems have plagued the landmark Woolworth Building two blocks northeast of Ground Zero. About 300 employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission were relocated there after their offices at 7 World Trade Center were destroyed.

Last week, the Woolworth Building's management launched a three-month cleanup of the entire facade of the 57-story building. The decision came after tests in November 2001 and February 2003 revealed as much as 3% asbestos in dust on an exterior window sill and high levels of asbestos in dust inside some air-intake rooms on some floors. The results prompted the SEC to conduct its own cleanup.

EPA and city officials are well aware that some buildings must be repeatedly cleaned before they can be pronounced safe.

In June 2002, the agency performed a test cleaning of 110 Liberty St., a five story mixed-use building just south of the WTC site.

According to the EPA's own documents, even after tenants cleaned their apartments, the agency found potentially hazardous levels of asbestos, dioxin and other toxic materials throughout most of the building. EPA contractors had to clean some apartments and commercial spaces two and three times before all contaminants could be reduced to acceptable levels.

Given the persistent contamination problems we know about, it is astonishing that two years later, federal and city officials know so little about the condition of most downtown commercial buildings.



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