Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Buildings Farther From Ground Zero to Be Tested for Contaminated Dust
By Anthony DePalma, New York Times, May 12, 2005

In order to determine how far the choking dust cloud spread from ground zero after the World Trade Center collapsed, federal officials are planning, for the first time, to look for a telltale sign of the dust in apartment buildings and workplaces along part of the Brooklyn waterfront and as far north as Houston Street in Lower Manhattan.

Under a draft plan announced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday night, inspectors will check desktops, carpets and the space behind refrigerators in 150 residential and commercial buildings that are a sample of the nearly 7,000 structures within the boundaries of the area considered most likely to have been exposed to the dust.

Despite the many harrowing images of the towering plume spreading across the city, scientists have been unable to detect exactly where the dust might have seeped in through windows and cracks to leave behind a potentially hazardous residue. But now they have determined that microscopic traces of slag wool, a type of insulating material, along with tiny particles of gypsum and concrete, can be taken as reliable evidence that trade center dust had passed that way.

As they test for slag wool, inspectors will also look for more dangerous traces of the trade center collapse - asbestos, lead, glass fibers and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are toxic soot and other substances from the fires that burned for weeks afterward. If these elements are found at dangerous levels, and the slag wool indicator also is detected, the federal government will thoroughly clean the contaminated section and, in some cases, the entire buildings and their central ventilation systems.

Although the sampling plan released on Tuesday covers an area more than twice the size of a cleanup effort in 2002, which was confined to Manhattan south of Canal Street, local officials, neighborhood residents and some members of the panel of experts who are advising the federal agency say it is so flawed that it is unlikely to quell the worries of people who live or work in the area.

Nor, they say, will the plan be sufficient to remove asbestos and other hazardous material that may still contaminate offices, apartments and schools that were in the path of the enormous dust cloud.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who played a central role in forcing the environmental agency to retest the area, said she had serious concerns about the plan and may seek changes before it is completed. Catherine McVay Hughes, a Lower Manhattan resident who is the community representative on the technical panel of experts that has been advising the environmental agency for the past 14 months, said she doubted that the plan would "put the issue to rest."

Among other criticism, Ms. McVay Hughes said the federal officials are being unrealistic about the potential danger within apartments. For example, she said, the plan does not consider hazardous material found beneath beds to pose a serious threat, while parents know that children love to hide there.

The plan was also criticized because it raises the possibility that if asbestos or lead is discovered without slag wool present, the owners or occupants will be left to clean up the hazards without help from the government. And because the sampling program is voluntary, concerns were raised that the potential liability could keep building owners from participating.

E. Timothy Oppelt, the acting assistant administrator for research and development for the environmental agency and the interim chairman of the technical panel, acknowledged that some landlords might not take part if they knew they might be stuck paying for a cleanup. But he said others might see the possibility of getting a clean bill of health as a selling point.

Such problems are unavoidable, Mr. Oppelt said. "There are people in the community who think we should come in with jackboots and tell people they must do this and must do that, but we're not going to do that," Mr. Oppelt said.

Mr. Oppelt said 150 buildings in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn will form a spatially balanced sample, a technique used for testing environmental conditions on lakes, rivers and streams. Some of them may have been cleaned in the 2002 voluntary program, in which 4,100 apartments below Canal Street in Lower Manhattan were scrubbed, but most were not cleaned professionally.

Officials expect to spend five months or more trying to enlist enough building owners. If the sample falls below 120 buildings, it will be considered unreliable and will throw the results of the study into question.

If the sampling shows extensive contamination far from ground zero, the testing area may have to be expanded, Mr. Oppelt said.

Officials said they did not know how much of the area to be sampled might still be contaminated. But in the 2002 cleanup program, levels of asbestos that exceeded acceptable standards were found in only 1 percent of the homes tested.

David M. Newman, an industrial hygienist who is a member of the expert panel, said the current plan is a significant improvement over the 2002 cleanup but still falls short of settling, once and for all, the extent of the hazards from the dust.

The draft plan will be discussed at a hearing of the technical panel on May 24.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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