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EPA accused of inaction at WTC

Feb. 12, 2002 at 2:24 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- At an emotional hearing Monday in Manhattan, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., charged the Environmental Protection Agency has "created a full-scale crisis of public confidence by not testing indoor areas" following the terrorist attacks.

"It has now been exactly five months since the terrorist attacks and, unfortunately, the people in Lower Manhattan still do not know whether or not it is safe to live and work in the area," said Nadler. "The Environmental Protection Agency has failed in its mission to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment by not exercising its full authority to test and clean all indoor spaces where people live and work."

Nadler said the EPA should not have relied on Lower Manhattan landlords to test the air quality of apartment buildings before allowing residents to move back in.

"Today, five months after the attacks, we learned it was the New York City Department of Environmental Protection that allowed landlords to let tenants back into their buildings but (the) city didn't test the apartments except for some roofs of buildings," Sudhir Jain, of the Lower Manhattan Tenants Coalition, told United Press International.

Jain said, "We only learned over the weekend that the U.S. Geological Survey found the dust is heavily alkaline that could make it caustic to breathe -- no one from New York told us that."

The hearing, which was held by the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands and Climate Change, was chaired by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. at the U.S. Customs House in Manhattan.

"A substantial group from the U.S.G.S. through field testing and remote sensing flights found the dust to be quite alkaline, indoor dust samples had a pH level of almost 12 in the leach test, where we take one part dust and mix it with 20 parts water." Geoff Plumlee, a research geochemist with the U.S.G.S. in Denver, told UPI. "On Sept. 27 we gave our results to the emergency responders and government agencies including the EPA and then our results went under a detailed peer review and we put the results on our Web site on Dec. 27."

"The dust was largely composed of particles of glass fibers, gypsum, concrete, paper and other building materials so it's not surprising that the pH level was high or that we found high levels of glass fibers," Plumlee added.

Most of the U.S.G.S. samples had a pH of 9.5 to 10.5, two taken inside a high-rise apartment and in a gymnasium across from the World Trade Center had a pH of 11.8 to 12.1 -- equivalent to that of liquid drain cleaner.

Acidity and alkalinity in solution is measured on a scale on which a value of 7 represents neutrality and lower numbers up to 0 indicate increasing acidity and higher numbers up to 14 indicate increasing alkalinity.

The EPA has said, "As expected, some asbestos was found in a few of the dust and debris samples taken from the blast site and individuals working in this area have been advised to take precautions. However, most of the air samples taken have been below levels of concern. Based on the asbestos test results received thus far, there are no significant health risks to occupants in the affected area or to the general public."

According to industrial hygienists at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health which provides training and assistance to 250 unions, highly alkaline dust, when in contact with moist tissue in the body -- the throat, mouth, nasal passages, skin and eyes -- becomes corrosive and can cause burns."

The U.S.G.S. found that as a result of the mineralization characterization studies, chemical leach tests and mapping its results "provide further support that cleanup of dust and the World Trade Center debris should be done with appropriate respiratory and dust control measures."

Tenants and residents near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan told UPI that no government agency had told them about the high alkalinity of dust.

"The city Health Department has said since day one to 'use a wet rag" to clean dust in apartments' and now they say 'if you have health problems go see your doctor,'" Jain said.

However, although the EPA. Web site does not mention the pH of dust at the World Trade Center, a spokeswoman for the Region 2 office of the EPA, Nina Habib Spencer, told UPI," We have stated the alkalinity of dust could cause problems -- it wasn't a surprise -- we have always advised that professionals should clean offices and apartments where there is measurable dust and a certified asbestos contractor where there was asbestos."

Nadler said that enough is known to be "alarmed and outraged at the federal government's response to the environmental impact of Sept. 11."

"First, we know that EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman misled the public on Sept. 18, 2001 when she said she was glad to reassure the people of New York that 'their air is safe to breathe, and their water is safe to drink,'" Nadler said. "She made that statement without the indoor data necessary to make such a pronouncement, second, we know that the EPA has made a series of conflicting comments about the presence and quality of hazardous materials, and has even knowingly withheld critical data regarding the causticity of the dust."

Nadler added that the EPA delegated authority to New York City to handle indoor environments, but did nothing to ensure that the city's response was appropriate.

The EPA has said repeatedly that they test air quality outdoors and that any testing indoors was the responsibility of the landlords who owned the buildings.

Many tenants have not been able to either get test results from landlords or find out if landlords did any testing for asbestos or other toxic substances.

"The government tells people they can go back home and that certified contractors should clean anything that may contain asbestos but no one tests for asbestos so a lot of people cleaned apartments themselves and now they tell us that cleaning incorrectly can be worse that no cleaning at all," Jain said. "In my view, Lower Manhattan is going to have to be cleaned right, building by building, apartment by apartment and then tested and certified by the government otherwise people won't stay, it's the only solution."

(Reported by Alex Cukan)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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