Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Plan to Test Downtown Dust Draws Ire
By Anahad O’Connor, New York Times, May 25, 2005

An Environmental Protection Agency plan to look for hazardous dust in buildings near ground zero was criticized yesterday by residents of Lower Manhattan and environmental advocates, who said it was deeply flawed and unrealistic.

"We're not happy at all with the cleanup," said one critic, Jean Hartman, who lives in the Independence Plaza North development in TriBeCa. "It wasn't done correctly the first time, and there are still so many problems with the way it is going now."

Ms. Hartman's comments came at a public hearing to discuss the agency's plan to inspect some of the thousands of apartments and workplaces that may have been exposed to a cloud of dust when the World Trade Center collapsed.

Federal officials said that the plan was still evolving, and that they were working to address critics' concerns.

"There have been a huge number of additions and modifications to the plan reflecting that we've accepted recommendations from the public and from the panel," said E. Timothy Oppelt, the acting assistant administrator for research and development for the agency, referring to a technical panel of experts who have been advising the agency. "That includes expanding the boundaries into Brooklyn, expanding the list of contaminants of concern, and looking for contamination not only in residential buildings but also in commercial establishments."

Although the plume of smoke that bellowed from the trade center collapse traveled several blocks, scientists have not been able to determine how far the microscopic particles of asbestos, lead and other toxic substances spread after the Sept. 11 attack. The plan calls for inspectors to clean desktops, carpets and other spaces in 150 buildings south of Houston Street in Manhattan and along part of the Brooklyn waterfront, and to test for traces of gypsum, concrete and slag wool, a type of insulating material, to distinguish trade center contamination from background dust. If slag wool and other traces of toxic soot are identified, the government has said, it will offer to clean the site and possibly the entire building.

But residents, environmental advocates and lawmakers have called the plan inadequate. At the hearing yesterday, in an auditorium at the United States Custom House, just a few blocks from where the twin towers once stood, scores of people complained that the agency would never get building owners to cooperate. To conduct inspections, the agency must receive approval from landlords, something critics said was unlikely because of concerns about liability.

"The ability of employers and landlords to veto requests for testing is a key issue that has to be resolved," said Kimberly Flynn, a coordinator for one group, 9/11 ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION. "If that doesn't happen, the sampling plan is simply not viable."

Mrs. Flynn and others at the meeting said that the agency should force landlords to agree to testing. But Michael Brown, a senior official with the environmental agency, said that most landlords would probably want to know if their buildings were contaminated, and that it was unlikely that those who were asked to participate would refuse. Still, he said, the agency has also come up with a list of "backup" buildings.

Some critics said the zone of buildings eligible for testing should be expanded, but the E.P.A. said that that was unlikely.

The agency also came under fire for its testing procedures. Under the plan, for example, if slag wool and other substances are discovered in areas described as "inaccessible," like some ventilation systems, the government will not offer to clean it up. The agency is looking primarily for slag wool, and because some slag wool particles might be heavier than other toxins, residents said it was possible that buildings farther from ground zero would test negative for slag wool but still have other contaminants that had traveled farther. Officials said the plan would be completed in a week or two.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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