Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Critics knock E.P.A.’s new testing plan
By Ronda Kaysen, Downtown Express, Volume 17, Number 51 | May 13 - 19, 2005

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a plan to sample buildings for remaining World Trade Center disaster dust, however many local residents and community leaders insist this testing will produce inadequate results.

The near final sampling plan, released on Tuesday, will sample 150 buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the hopes of determining the extent – if any – of the remaining contamination from the toxic plume that followed the collapse of the W.T.C. The results will determine if individual units or whole buildings should be cleaned and if a wider sampling and cleanup effort is in order.

Although critics laud the plan as a step in the right direction, they worry its methods may not find the dust that is there.

“The public needs an effective program to test and the current program gives false assurances,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, community liaison for the E.P.A. Expert Technical Review Panel, which was established in March 2004 to devise a sampling and cleaning plan.

The plan will decide the extent of the contamination of a particular building based on the median – or midpoint – of the contamination levels, a strategy that has many critics concerned.

“That would water down any contamination results that are found,” said Linda Rosenthal, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler who worked with Senator Hillary Clinton to establish the E.P.A. panel. “The point isn’t not to find [contamination], the point is to have the most rigorous plan that will find it in order to protect the people.”

Nadler is concerned because buildings with contaminated samples will still be considered clean if the number of toxic samples is low.

The E.P.A., however, insists their strategy follows a tried and true scientific method and is consistent with other contamination programs they have conducted. “We use these kinds of approaches to inform our decisions,” said Tim Oppelt, interim E.P.A. panel chairperson. “There’s clearly a difference between finding a sample in one place and then leaping to the conclusion that the whole building must be contaminated.”

Because the sampling program is voluntary, critics worry it will exclude many office workers and commercial and residential tenants who would like to see their homes and workplaces sampled. “If you’re a worker, you’re at the mercy of your employer or your landlord to let you come in and check your space,” said Hughes.

“From the beginning, it has been the intent of the E.P.A. that it would be a voluntary situation,” said Oppelt.

However, buildings deemed desirable for sampling — based on their proximity to the site, for example — will be courted by the agency. The selection process itself may take as long as four or five months to complete.

The sampling plan will search for a W.T.C. “signature” in the dust that is unique from other forms of New York City dust. Already, E.P.A. scientists are working to identify the signature. If a signature is not determined, or if it is not found in the sampled buildings, a cleanup will be unlikely.

“At that point we’re stuck,” Oppelt said. “We don’t have a reliable method beyond visible dust. There’s really not [another] a reliable way to determine the extent of the contamination.”

He is confident, however, that researchers will find a viable signature. “There’s a fair level of enthusiasm that it will work,” he said.

Not everyone is in agreement that a signature will be found in the pockets of dust hidden throughout the city, and with such a heavy reliance placed on finding a signature, the E.P.A.’s critics are anxious.

“From my read of the plan, there’s no validation for a signature, nor do I expect one and therefore we need a plan B,” said Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “What if there’s no valid signature? What do we do then?”

In the 14 months since the panel was created, not one apartment has been checked for contaminants. Oppelt hopes with the sampling plan in its final stages, a consensus can be reached and the sampling can begin in earnest. “We hope that it satisfies most of the views of all of the people,” he said. However, “ultimately it falls on E.P.A. to make the call.”

The plan can be viewed at

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