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'The city owes me': Sanitation workers who hauled debris to Fresh Kills landfill seeking compensation for health problems
By Graham Rayman, Newsday Staff Writer, May 17, 2004

For Roy Redman and 56 current and former city sanitation workers, the echoes of those awful months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks still reverberate.

Redman, 75, drove a city Sanitation Department launch - known as a "Sweetboat" - for nearly a year following the disaster, when the Fresh Kills landfill became the resting place for about 1 million tons of debris.

The intricate barge operation ferried debris from Ground Zero to docks on Staten Island, and then to Fresh Kills, where it was sifted and interred. As police and FBI agents culled remains, personal effects and important items from the debris, sanitation workers performed several other tasks at the docks, at marine transfer stations and at the landfill.

"There was a tremendous amount of smoke and dust in the air, which made it hard to breathe," Redman said. "We were breathing that without respirators. My eyes are still dry all the time, I have a cough and acid reflux."

Done in by dust

In pending lawsuits filed in federal and state courts, the 57 workers claim that city officials misled or did not inform them about the dangers of the World Trade Center dust and failed to train them and provide respirators for as long as two months.

Their throats, lungs and stomachs, they said, were coated with the corrosive dust, causing mild to severe respiratory discomfort, such as asthma and persistent heartburn, and exposed them to potential future illness. A recent Mount Sinai study said the dust consisted mainly of pulverized concrete and tiny glass shards, which caused a chemical reaction "like drain cleaner."

"The doctors asked me if I had had a throat operation, because it was so scarred," said Jack Saltarella, 64, another of the plaintiffs. "The city owes me. They lied to us."

Because they did not work at Ground Zero, the men could not qualify for the federal Victim Compensation Fund. "Obviously, someone believed that Ground Zero workers deserved to be compensated without approving of liability," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Robin Wertheimer. "Now these guys have to prove liability. There is something inherently unfair about that."

Keith Mellis, a Sanitation Department spokesman, and Kate Ahlers O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Corporation Counsel, both declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

"As much as we want to be able to respond, we feel it is inappropriate to comment further," O'Brien said.

Litigation abounds

The city has mounted an aggressive defense. City lawyers fought the validity of the initial notice of claim, although it did not do so for Ground Zero workers. The city also questioned workers for seven hours and subpoenaed their entire medical histories, going back decades, in some cases.

"They asked us everything from almost the day we were born," Redman said.

Wertheimer said the city has treated the workers "not as patriots but as malingerers trying to cash in on a national disaster."

Though they did get dust masks early on, the workers say they did not receive the far more effective respirators and Tyvek suits until as late as two months after they started working on the debris operation. FBI agents and other federal workers had the equipment within two days after the attacks.

"They had them from day one," sanitation worker John Menoni said in his deposition.

Menoni claims he was told he couldn't have one unless he were a law enforcement worker. "Nobody was thinking, 'Am I breathing something bad.' We were all just trying to do what we could," he said.

When they asked for the equipment, other workers said, they were told they had to get it at the landfill, but access was a problem.

"Sanitation is telling us nothing is really dangerous," Saltarella said. "Then, we see guys wearing respirators, but we're told we couldn't get a vehicle to go up there."

A chilling memo

On Dec. 10, 2001, each sanitation worker in the debris operation received a memo that said "as a result" of the work, they "may have been exposed to asbestos." For some workers, the memo was jarring.

"They send us the letter after the fact," said retired sanitation worker John Brace, 63. "If they knew I was being exposed to it, why didn't I get a respirator right away? We just weren't told everything that was going on."

The central questions in the lawsuit are whether the city adequately took care of the workers and whether the city was aware of the health risks at the time. At a place where maintaining the production schedule was a top priority, records unearthed in the lawsuit indicate there were mixed signals about the health dangers.

The city's environmental testing did not find elevated levels of unsafe materials in the air, records show. Questions have been raised, however, about that testing. Meanwhile, records of interagency meetings indicate the dust was a constant concern. There was, for example, a "decontamination trailer" on the site.

In his deposition, sanitation official Dennis Diggins admits that dust was a concern. But he insists: "The EPA was telling us it was safe to work it. To my knowledge, we were safe."

In a deposition, Edmund Brescia, a sanitation department industrial hygienist, said the first safety seminars were not held until the "end of October, 2001," and that site safety training did not start until November. It is unclear how many workers received the training.

There are still dozens of workers complaining of ailments. In depositions, Robert Goffredo said he still gets easily winded, and Lenny DiNotte complains of shortness of breath. Wayne Brown worked in the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station, where debris was transferred to the barges. "You could barely see," Brown said in his deposition referring to the dust inside the building.

Doctors who have studied trade center workers have established a link between health effects and the dust. "Patients would have been better served if respiratory protection had been made available early, and if they had been presented with the need of wearing it," Dr. Stephen Levin of Mount Sinai said in his deposition. "That was a great misfortune, and it was bad public health policy.",0,397992.story


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