NEW YORK, April 10 (UPI) -- Almost seven months after the World Trade Center collapsed in a toxic cloud of dust, government agencies have not determined whether the cars and furniture containing asbestos-contaminated dust are safe.
"Some people have not returned to their apartments because of the dust, and they're out of money," Eric Schmeltzer, press secretary for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told United Press International.
"However, the liability potential 20 years down the line against the city for telling people to clean dust with a wet rag, the state that is using millions to lure people back to Lower Manhattan to reduce their rent and the federal government that said the air is safe could amount in the trillions -- so the remedies are really small potatoes in comparison."
Schmeltzer said the U.S. Environmental Protection should have developed a plan of action following Sept. 11, and had dust-contaminated apartments professionally cleaned even though it was a massive and expensive action.
According to Schmeltzer, had the EPA conducted a proper clean up of the contaminated areas, they would have been finished by now, but now it should test each apartment, ensure a proper cleanup appropriate for asbestos and then test the clean up.
"While many places have been cleaned by tenants, by volunteers and by professional cleaners, the dust may be gone, but asbestos may still be embedded in things and could be released when aggravated," Schmeltzer said.
The EPA is looking at the cleanup techniques that the city advised tenants and landlords to employ in cleaning dust from the World Trade Center.
"We're looking for a vacant building to test a variety of dust levels to test the clean up techniques that the city advised such as the wet mop and rag and the HEPA vacuum," Mears said. "If it turns out adjustments need to be made, we will, I can't give a timeline, but we can't do everything all at once -- we honestly don't think there is a large risk from asbestos."
According to Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan, the city of New York announced last month that on March 18, the city would return the vehicles to their owners with a "tipsheet from the New York City Department of Health telling people to remove asbestos-laden dust."
Nadler wrote Christie Todd Whitman, EPA administrator, to exercise her authority under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to prevent the return of the cars by filing an emergency injunction against the action because it would pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health."
"The EPA failed to act according to the law, the National Contingency Plan requires the EPA has the responsibly to respond whenever a hazardous material is released, instead they said in September that the air was safe to breathe," Schmeltzer said. "The agency sent people back into a potentially dangerous situation."
Schmeltzer said the issue of the cars and the indoor air of Lower Manhattan are the same, because the EPA should not have allowed people to move back after two weeks after the collapse of the twin towers, without a proper cleanup and testing for contaminants.
"(The) EPA didn't want to do it, it said it wasn't its job, there was a gap in the law, so it allowed the city to handle the dust issue and tell people they could move back and wipe the dust away with a wet rag," Schmeltzer said. "EPA was responsible."
Mary Mears, a spokeswoman for the EPA in New York City, said the EPA had "concerns even before Nadler wrote them the letter" and asked the city to postpone any action on the cars.
Last December, then-city Health Commissioner Neal Cohen said the more than 900 vehicles that had been towed from the World Trade Center that could still be driven would likely never be returned to their owners.
"These vehicles are contaminated," Cohen said in December. "The cleanup of them is not practical, there is asbestos and other debris and other pollutants and contaminates and particulates that covered them all, and they're under the engine(s)."
"The EPA is meeting with city agencies to determine if the cars can be cleaned from the dust and we've been talking with a number of asbestos experts because there is no clear answer," Mears told UPI. "This isn't something we've had experience with."
Mears pointed out that the number of cars that had been parked near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 which had been towed to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island has been reported in the thousands but that fewer than 100 cars were still in question. The city said in March that it had sent certified letters to almost 400 individual car owners, telling them the cars would soon be retrievable.
"Most of the cars that were not physically demolished by the collapse have been considered 'totaled' by the insurance companies of private owners," Mears said. "The remaining cars are owned by private companies or insurance companies."
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), an occupational safety group, has said since a week after the collapse that asbestos abatement standards should be adhered to, according to NICOSH spokesman Jonathan Bennett.
"We normally don't deal with asbestos-contaminated cars, or asbestos-contaminated carpeting and upholstery because those companies that do asbestos abatement have found that they cannot pass the test of the air after abatement required by the government," Bennett told UPI. "That's why in asbestos abatement carpeting, upholstery and anything else that can't be laundered is thrown away."
(Reported by Alex Cukan in Albany, N.Y.)