Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Do lower Manhattan cleanup right
By William F. Henning Jr., New York Daily News, August 23, 2002

    Next month, the Environmental Protection Agency will finally begin cleaning hundreds of apartments in lower Manhattan.
It's a shame that the agency isn't going to do it right. The EPA's aim, of course, is to rid these apartments of the asbestos and other toxic materials thrown into the air by the collapse of the twin towers and the fires that burned for four months afterward.
When the EPA announced in June that it would do this, it was reversing the position it held ever since Sept. 11. For eight long months, the EPA insisted no cleanup was necessary. Then, when at last it agreed that, okay, maybe one was, it said the cleanup was "to reduce the safety concerns of residents." As if the release of hundreds of tons of asbestos, fiberglass, lead, highly alkaline concrete dust and many other toxic substances wasn't a real public health hazard, just the concern of some worrywarts.
The indoor cleanup should have started right after the collapse, at the same time the outdoor cleanup began. It is now too late to prevent the exposures that have already occurred, but it is not too late to prevent future harmful exposures.
    How? First off, the scope of the EPA cleanup - limited to residences below Canal St., and then only when the occupant requests it - is too narrow. The contamination is not limited to residences. It is present in workplaces and public spaces and in residences where the owner does not request a cleanup. All contaminated places should be cleaned up on a building-by-building basis.
    Then, too, the cleanup must be conducted by properly trained and protected personnel. Our previous calls for protection of all cleanup workers were ignored, with the result that more than 400 day laborers face the prospect of long-term respiratory illness.
    As we learned last week, the EPA itself was guilty of a shocking oversight lapse when it permitted a cleanup contractor to spew asbestos into the air by vacuuming downtown streets with improperly equipped trucks. The EPA should ensure that similar failures do not recur by requiring contractors to prove their workers have been properly trained and equipped. And then theEPA should take full charge of the cleanup.
    Though the EPA has the sole responsibility for the cleanup, it perversely rejects its mandated role. Instead, it is calling the cleanup a "collaborative" effort of federal, state and city agencies. Only the federal government has the resources and expertise to clean lower Manhattan. The EPA can and should call on other agencies to assist in this effort, but not to co-manage it.
    However belated, it is good that the EPA has agreed to a partial cleanup of lower Manhattan. But the cleanup will only be effective if it includes all contaminated places, including, in particular, workplaces. It is not too late to do it right.
Henning is chairman of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

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