Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article


E.P.A. panel continues to debate what to do
By Elizabeth O’Brien, Downtown Express, Volume 17 • Issue 5 | June 25 - July 1, 2004

Members of the public told an Environmental Protection Agency panel on Tuesday that the agency was losing time and jeopardizing their trust in its efforts to determine whether World Trade Center toxins remain in their communities.

Residents and workers voiced their frustrations about the pace of the panel’s inquiry during public comment periods at the June 22 meeting. Formed in March, the panel of government and independent experts is charged with recommending further action for the E.P.A. to take to measure the environmental impact of the World Trade Center disaster.

On Tuesday, panelists debated their responsibilities to sound science and to people who are anxious for answers about the health consequences of the Twin Towers’ collapse nearly three years after 9/11. Many panelists acknowledged the public’s support was critical to their efforts.

"If we spend a lot of money and a lot of time coming up with a program that the community has no faith in, then we’ve wasted our time yet again," said David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department and a panelist.

The specter of the E.P.A.’s early response to 9/11 has hung over the panel since its inception. Last August, the agency’s independent inspector general released a report judging the E.P.A. acted without sufficient evidence when it declared the air Downtown safe to breathe one week after the World Trade Center collapse. Then, in 2002, the agency instituted a residential cleanup program that many Downtowners found to be poorly designed and run.

"Once trust is lost, then it’s very hard to regain, and I think some of the issues we’re facing right now are because of that," said Micki Siegel de Hernandez, a labor representative who served at the meeting as an alternate for Catherine McVay Hughes, the panel’s community liaison.

The panel has distanced itself from its original charge of overseeing the retesting of select Lower Manhattan apartments that registered for the E.P.A.’s voluntary cleanup, a program that sampled solely for asbestos in most of the approximately 4,200 participating apartments. Instead of the retesting approach, which would have gauged whether any recontamination occurred after the cleanup, panelists have recommended 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.

To this end, the panel has for the past few months discussed whether World Trade Center dust has a chemical fingerprint that would distinguish its origins beyond a doubt. Members continued to grapple with this topic at Tuesday’s meeting, asking questions related to the design of a testing protocol for example, would a certain proportion of man-made fibers, a characteristic element of W.T.C. dust, in a sample also indicate the presence of lead, mercury, or other contaminants of potential concern?

Community members pushed the panel on Tuesday to move beyond what they called its academic preoccupation with a W.T.C. dust fingerprint to the speedy application of a testing program that would sample for a wide array of contaminants.

"We know everyone has a day job and we’re trying to cut down and solidify the discussions," de Hernandez said.

By the end of the day, panelists showed support for an investigation into a W.T.C. fingerprint along with testing for a broad spectrum of contaminants.

"I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the labor and residential community to want to know after two and a half years, for the first time, what, if any, contaminants are in their workplaces and residences," Dave Newman, a panelist and an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said after the meeting. "I’m pleased the panel seems to be moving forward in a comprehensive and expeditious manner."

Dr. Paul Gilman, E.P.A. assistant administrator for research and development and chairperson of the panel, told Downtown Express that the group was doing its best to meet its "diffuse charges."

"Everyone would like to do it a bit differently, and it is a challenge," Gilman said.

In March, Gilman said he hoped to have recontamination testing completed by the end of June. The process has lengthened considerably since the panel decided it would not follow in the footsteps of the previous E.P.A. cleanup, but instead will recommend a broader testing program. Under a rough timeline presented by a panelist on Tuesday, collection of samples could begin in approximately five months.

Members of the public also asked for a more formal mechanism for their participation at the panel’s monthly meetings, requesting among other provisions that funding be provided for an experienced facilitator to guide community involvement.

"The community does not wish to keep coming in here and making the same complaints," said Jo Polett, a Duane St. resident who has suffered respiratory problems her doctors attribute to the presence of World Trade Center dust in her apartment.

Michael Brown, an E.P.A. spokesperson, said after the meeting that the E.P.A. was exploring ways to engage an expert to facilitate community input and review of a sampling and testing plan. Brown also said the agency is also considering community members’ demand for a transcript to be made of each panel meeting.

Gilman said the next steps for the panel include selecting laboratories to participate in the testing program and identifying already existing samples of World Trade Center dust that could aid in the investigation.

Panelists and the public have asked for a budget for their proposed efforts, citing the difficulty of planning in the absence of any financial guidelines.

Gilman said he has tried to focus panel members away from monetary concerns at this stage. He said some Federal Emergency Management Agency funds remained from the initial E.P.A. cleanup, but that he did not want to engage the scientific experts on the panel in financial discussions.

"I’m trying not to have people talk about a budget context," Gilman told Downtown Express. "I want to hear what people believe to be the best approach­not the cheapest."

The E.P.A. is not bound to act on the panel’s recommendations. However, given that the panel was formed largely to restore public trust in the E.P.A. and its post-9/11 cleanup process, it is likely the agency will adopt whatever suggestions its resources will allow.

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