Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

WTC trucks had wrong dust filters
By Kenneth R. Bazinet, Daily News Washington Bureau, August 15, 2002

    WASHINGTON - A private contractor hired to clean up asbestos-tainted dust near Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11 failed to use required filters on its vacuum trucks, a federal report shows. Feds discovered the lapse three weeks later and ordered the contractor, Earth Technology Inc., to go back and sweep the streets again, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general obtained by the Daily News.
    Earth Technology's contract with the EPA required the use of so-called high efficiency particulate air filters, which are capable of trapping particles so tiny they can't be seen by the human eye. They keep the particles, which ordinary vacuums wouldn't catch, from escaping the vacuum trucks and seeping back into the air.
    But for the first five days of the cleanup, starting Sept. 14, the 10 trucks that sucked up dust in streets of the Financial District and around Battery Park City didn't have the HEPA filters. During the cleanup, which ended Oct. 15, thousands of people passed through the area, including rescue workers, volunteers and military personnel involved in the recovery effort.
    But the report, released last month, repeatedly emphasized the air quality was safe. Other tests conducted by other sources also have repeatedly shown downtown air quality to be free of asbestos and other cancer-causing substances.
    Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) demanded assurances that the missteps wouldn't happen again, especially as the interior cleaning of buildings around the World Trade Center site continues. "This finding begs the question as to what other problems may have occurred in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, of which the public, and possibly even EPA itself, are still unaware," Clinton, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a letter she fired off yesterday to EPA.

Probe of EPA chief

    EPA internal investigators learned of the failure to use the HEPA filters during interviews in an unrelated conflict-of-interest probe of EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. She was accused of making assurances the air quality in lower Manhattan was safe to protect the stock portfolio of her husband, who had interests in two companies in the area. The inspector general, Emmett Dashiell, cleared Whitman of those charges, but the failure to use the HEPA filters was revealed in his report. "It was buried," a government source said.
    EPA spokeswoman Steffanie Bell, said the "unusual and unprecedented" circumstances after the terrorist attacks prevented the agency from immediately catching the lapse. "As soon as we found it wasn't the right equipment, we immediately told the contractor to address it and bring in the proper equipment," she said. Bell said the same mistake would not happen again, "even in the most chaotic of situations."  Repeated efforts to reach Earth Technology of New York were unsuccessful yesterday.
    During the first week of the cleanup, EPA environmental scientist Dan Harkay discovered the vacuum trucks weren't using HEPA filters during a chat with a subcontractor at Ground Zero, the report said. Harkay ordered Earth Technology to get the proper equipment, but allowed the cleanup to continue until the HEPA filters arrived. The trucks were equipped with filters, but they were considered less effective.
    It was another three to four weeks before top EPA officials learned of the mistake and ordered the second round of street cleaning, the report said.


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