Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

EPA-Backed Scientists Call For Overhaul Of Dust Sampling Plan For Ground Zero
Inside EPA Environmental NewsStand, January 24, 2005

EPA's proposed testing plan for gauging indoor contamination from the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks has come under severe criticism by an expert advisory panel that the agency itself vetted, raising the prospect of a far more expensive cleanup or a protracted fight between EPA and New York community groups.

"The whole document was sloppily prepared [and] not really thought through, by people who didn't look like they knew what they were doing," one panel member tells Risk Policy Report. "EPA doesn't want to clean up every house, but we've got a special situation here, and there needs to be urgency."

In a Jan. 18 report, the panel -- which was convened by a network of community groups to help with its review of the test plan -- calls for wholesale changes, including an immediate cleanup that would encompass more territory and target more contaminants than EPA has proposed.

Submitted to EPA in response to the test plan, the report shows that "the EPA's proposed sampling program as it exists now is simply not scientifically strong enough to produce complete and valid information," says a representative of the network, the WTC Community-Labor Coalition. "These are not minor improvements," and the coalition is "prepared to do battle over the critical improvements recommended by our advisory team."

The members of the panel -- who include specialists in environmental health, toxicology, epidemiology, industrial hygiene, statistical analysis, chemistry, atmospheric transport and modeling -- were selected by WTC Community-Labor but approved by EPA's Office of Research and Development, and their review of the plan, which EPA released for comment in October, was funded through the agency's Community-Based Participatory Research process. "We got people with the academic credentials and who were well-published" in the relevant areas, one WTC Community-Labor member says.

Topping the list of the recommendations is for EPA to start sampling for contaminants and cleaning up immediately instead of postponing this work until it has developed a "signature," or a chemical formula that would identify dust contaminated by the 9/11 fires and building collapses. The test plan describes the signature as one of its "cornerstones," but the panel report suggests it may not be possible to devise a reliable one, since the fires and collapses are likely to exhibit different signatures at different distances, if they exhibit signatures at all.

"If there were a signature, that'd be wonderful," one panel member says. "But, frankly, we don't think there is one." The panel report stops short of explicitly recommending EPA give up altogether on searching for a signature, but it urges it to do so "indirectly," the member adds.

One WTC Community-Labor representative says there may in fact be some as-yet-unseen research value to looking for a signature but adds that the effort is needlessly delaying the cleanup. "This EPA proposal is a recipe for endless delay, while research drags on to identify WTC chemical signature that may not even exist."

Another panel recommendation is for EPA to expand the area it has proposed for the first phase of sampling and cleanup to include several neighborhoods in Brooklyn, as well as other neighborhoods where residents have exhibited respiratory ailments that could be traced to the attacks. The proposed sampling methods should also be changed in order to detect any dioxin traces, asbestos fibers of less than 5 microns in length and mercury particulate matter.

The panel goes on to urge EPA to reconsider and make more transparent its basis for choosing buildings to be tested and deciding when to test for certain contaminants, noting that it has not fully explained its criteria nor designed its methods to factor in the possible health risks from chemical mixtures. Unlike other agency testing programs, the plan lacks even a quality-control component, the panel also points out. "To not talk about quality control is just inappropriate and not in keeping with the way EPA has operated in the past," one panel member says.

The report, along with other comments on the test plan, will be reviewed by EPA and the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel, a committee set up by EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to monitor the cleanup process. Officials from the agency and the technical review panel are expected to meet late next month to consider the feedback.


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