Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Class-Action Lawsuit Charges EPA with "A Shockingly Deliberate Indifference to Human Health"
NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health, March 16, 2004

Last week a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal District Court charged EPA and its former head, Christie Whitman, with "a shockingly deliberate indifference to human health" when she issued reassuring statements about air quality downtown that proved to be misleading."As a result," according to the lawsuit, a large group of New Yorkers exposed "to hazardous substances for over two years is left with the expense of full and proper cleanup of their residences and workplaces, and is faced with potentially serious long-term health effects."

The suit asks the court to compel EPA to test for hazardous substances in workplaces, schools and residences and clean up any hazardous substances that are discovered (previously, EPA tested only in residences where the resident requested testing). The suit also asks that EPA reimburse anyone for testing and cleaning that should have been done by EPA. And it asks that the federal government fund an independent medical monitoring program for anyone exposed to the air in Lower Manhattan.

The suit, which seeks class-action status, was filed by a dozen people who live, work, or go to school in Lower Manhattan or nearby Brooklyn. Six of the plaintiffs are residents, four have workplaces or businesses in Lower Manhattan and two were students at Stuyvesant high school, which is four blocks from Ground Zero.

One of the plaintiffs, Robert Gulack, is Steward for National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 293, which represents about 350 employee of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Manhattan. The SEC's offices in New York City were destroyed on September 11, but a month later the SEC opened offices two blocks from the World Trade Center site, where the smoke and fumes from the fires burning at Ground Zero were very obvious. "When we reported to our new offices a month after the attack . . . you could see yellow smoke in the air inside the SEC's office space, said Gulack. "Almost immediately, about half of us fell ill."

In an interview with NYCOSH before the suit was filed, Gulack said, "It's EPA's responsibility to protect everyone from exposure to 9/11 debris. They ought to have ensured that all buildings were professionally abated, inside and out. Instead, they provided only inadequate assistance for personal residences, and arbitrarily declared that office buildings were none of their concern. It's an outrage that EPA has been leaving landlords and employers to clean up as much or as little as they want to, without any official oversight."

As a class-action, the lawsuit is filed on behalf of everyone who was exposed to the air as a result of EPA's actions or whose residence or workplace was contaminated. People who believe that they are members of the class do not need to do anything at this time to benefit from the suit if it succeeds.

The lead attorneys for the suit are with the Philadelphia law firm Berger & Montague, which has a long history of successful class-actions involving environmental issues. Other law firms working on the suit are the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project and Shandell, Blitz, Blitz & Bookson, both of Manhattan.


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