Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

E.P.A. panel considers its next step
By Elizabeth O’Brien, The Downtown Express, Volume 16 • Issue 53 | May 28 - June 3, 2004

The Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of retesting Lower Manhattan apartments by the end of June seemed remote this week as the agency’s expert panel grappled with how to measure lingering contamination from the World Trade Center collapse.

At its third public meeting on May 24, the 17-member panel of government and independent experts continued discussing whether World Trade Center dust has a chemical fingerprint that would distinguish it from normal urban grit. This so-called signature would help scientists determine what, if any, contamination remains from the World Trade Center collapse.

The panel was formed in March and charged in part with overseeing the retesting of select Lower Manhattan apartments that registered for the E.P.A.’s post-9/11 cleanup. This voluntary program sampled solely for asbestos in most of the approximately 4,200 participating apartments.

But panelists have moved away from the retesting approach, which would gauge whether any recontamination occurred after the cleanup. Instead, they have argued for broader testing that would determine whether any W.T.C. toxins remain in areas exposed to the dust cloud, regardless of whether they resulted from recontamination or from the original event.

"The panel decided that the recontamination question is not the most interesting question," Dr. Paul Gilman, E.P.A. assistant administrator for research and development and chairperson of the panel, told Downtown Express at the meeting.

In March, Gilman acknowledged that the goal of completing the retesting by June might be "terribly optimistic." Even so, the E.P.A. may not have anticipated the degree to which the panel would rethink its original mandate Panelists have delved into the design of a testing program that would restore public trust in the agency after an inspector general report last August found it acted without enough evidence when it declared the air Downtown safe to breathe one week after the terror attack.

Gilman asked panelists at Monday’s meeting if they might reconsider their original goal of retesting cleaned apartments, an option they declined. At its next meeting, the panel will continue to discuss whether certain compositions of glass fibers or other materials would effectively indicate World Trade Center dust, a question that will then shape its testing program.

The scope of the program remains under discussion. Community members have pressed for extending dust sampling beyond the original boundary of Canal St. in Manhattan, and also for the inclusion of offices, schools and firehouses in the program.

Panelists were told not to consider costs when designing the testing program, but at Monday’s meeting members acknowledged that they needed to work with whatever resources are available. E.P.A. officials have not publicly named a dollar figure for the testing program but have acknowledged that the price tag will limit its reach.

During a public comment session at Monday’s meeting, one Battery Park City mother cut to the heart of the community’s concerns about Downtown air quality.

"The only question I asked was if it was safe for my children," said the mother of two, who requested anonymity. The panelists greeted her question with silence, she recalled with disappointment "I was hoping to get some response."

The next public hearing of the E.P.A. expert panel is tentatively scheduled for June 22. For more information, call 800-803-2833 or go to


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