Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Critics Say Unclear EPA Role At Ground Zero May Undermine Cleanup
Clean Air Report via, Issue Vol. 15, No. 23, November 4, 2004

EPA critics say the agency's recent reluctance to outline its possible indoor cleanup responsibilities for parts of Manhattan affected by the World Trade Center attacks three years ago may undermine upcoming efforts to test the area for contamination, since property owners and businesses may avoid testing if it could require them to pay for cleanups.

EPA last month revised its plan for testing indoor air in lower Manhattan in response to recommendations by an agency-convened panel of experts, which included broadening the geographical scope and type of pollutants to be tested. But a coalition of labor unions, community groups and environmentalists is strongly opposing the agency's revised plan, saying it does not include an adequate cleanup commitment by EPA, which could undermine the testing effort if it remains unclear who will pay for an eventual solution at the site.

EPA is seeking comment on the draft sampling plan and will discuss public response at an advisory panel meeting Nov. 15. EPA will begin recruiting Manhattan participants for the expanded testing next year, an agency source says.

The coalition of local activists, including Sierra Club and 9/11 Environmental Action, sent an Oct. 26 letter to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt calling on the agency to affirm seven key "principles," including expanded testing of Manhattan and a pledge of responsibility to clean up where warranted. Agency officials are saying they will address EPA's role in possible cleanups after the testing effort is complete.

But the group's effort is drawing support from key New York lawmakers Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Hillary Clinton, Democrats who both issued statements last week calling on EPA to pledge to a cleanup.

While agency critics and congressional sources acknowledge EPA is significantly expanding its testing plans, they are concerned the plan lacks any detail on how EPA and New York City officials will handle a cleanup if warranted by the testing information. The agency has not affirmed its authority to gain entry into commercial buildings and require or conduct cleanups, several critics say, and may disqualify for cleanup buildings that have high levels of specific WTC-related contaminants but do not meet a proposed agency threshold for cleanup.

But agency officials say they are planning to outline cleanup responsibilities once a key WTC expert panel requested by Sen. Clinton and chaired by EPA science advisor Paul Gilman reviews results from the testing effort and makes its recommendations. Determining a strategy for cleanup responsibilities now would "not be time and energy well spent" given the number of scientific uncertainties related to the testing effort, a key agency official says.

EPA's revised testing plan issued Oct. 21 would significantly expand the geographical region to be studied by the agency, and would include commercial businesses and public buildings such as schools and firehouses, as well as controversial contaminants such as lead. The agency's earlier plan focused only on re-testing already visited residences, but was strongly rejected by the agency's WTC advisory panel as too limited.

EPA's response to the environmental aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks has sparked controversy over the past few years, with Sen. Clinton and other key lawmakers pushing the agency to address outstanding concerns about public health risks associated with the site. Agency officials say there is no strong scientific evidence of significant long-term risks to residents but that the agency is working to address citizens' outstanding concerns.

Several sources say the efforts by environmentalists and the senator were timed to seek a response from EPA on cleanups before the presidential election. One congressional source says Clinton is expressing her impatience with EPA's progress on testing. "Now it's time for the EPA to back up [its] plan by committing to doing testing and cleanup," Clinton says in a Oct. 26 statement.

But agency officials explain that while the revised plan "doesn't speak to cleanup," EPA will proceed to cleanup if there is strong evidence from the testing that people are facing significant risks from contamination, even if the contaminants at issue are not part of any specific WTC "signature."

As part of the expanded testing effort, EPA will try to establish a "signature" or chemical marker that will serve as an indicator of World Trade Center-related contamination.

The agency source says EPA has repeatedly clashed with some New York city officials regarding responsibility for cleaning up WTC contamination. Several sources say city health officials fear that findings of high lead levels -- whether associated with the WTC attacks or not -- would trigger city requirements to remove the lead and could even lead to possible lawsuits from residents. Gilman has met with city officials several times -- most recently in October -- to try to reach an agreement with city officials, the agency source says.

The agency is trying to determine if it has the authority to test in buildings against the wishes of the owner, the source says.

But a key WTC panel member says lack of clarity over who will be responsible for cleanups as a result of testing may act as a "tremendous disincentive" for participation in the voluntary testing program, which already is facing weak participation and may provide only limited findings.

Several agency critics are concerned that EPA may try to remove lead from the list of contaminants it will test for. A source with 9/11 Environmental Action says that the community will fiercely oppose "any no signature/no cleanup clause, where an exceedance of one or more [contaminants of potential concern] known to be prevalent in WTC dust does not trigger cleanup."

Agency officials say they will test for lead, but that background levels of lead in lower Manhattan buildings may obscure actual WTC-related public health risks.


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