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September 29th, 2003

Environmental Concerns

by Ann Warner Arlen

Downtown Air-EPA and 9/11Following publication of the EPA Inspector General’s report on EPA’s White House-directed decision not to warn New Yorkers about the breathing hazards in dust and smoke from the World Trade Center attack, a New York Newsday op-ed held that the report “should by all rights have New Yorkers?ɂ out in the streets.”

In fact, 9/11 activists had been out in the streets, and in the halls of Congress, for two years, telling workers, parents of children in contaminated schools, the press, and politicians that EPA Administrator Christine Whitman’s “the air is safe to breathe” press releases put people’s health in jeopardy. They warned that getting the dust out of interiors was urgent. Organized as 9/11 Environmental Action, with Congressman Jerry Nadler’s support, they demanded of EPA and NYC’s Departments of Health and Environmental Protection decontamination of all affected areas. The responsibility of the health agencies, they said, was to prevent further harm.

Now, responding to Inspector General Nikki Tinsley’s conclusion that “delays in implementing a government organized cleanup resulted in unnecessary exposure to asbestos and other contaminants, “they again demand a comprehensive government cleanup for still-contaminated homes, workplaces and schools. They hold that further harm can be prevented with the decontamination that should have been done two years ago. Many homes, workplaces and schools are still contaminated, they say, thus it is possible to prevent further harm by doing the cleanup that should have been done in the first place.

That particular EPA disaster protocol includes all affected areas that test toxic. (No arbitrary line at Canal Street, no schools left to the Board of Education.) Recontamination (now reported downtown) is avoided by starting with exteriors, moving to public interiors, elevators and heating/cooling ducts, and only then to all private interiors. Professionals, hazmat equipped and trained, including respirators, do the work. [ NYC Department of Health’s September 22, 2001 press release advised: “Where dust is particularly thick tenants are advised to directly wet the dust with water, and remove it in layers with wet rags and mops.” And: “It is unnecessary to wear a mask while inside buildings as long as [these] cleaning procedures?ɂ are followed.”]

Tinsley’s report cannot reverse the health consequences of 25 months of avoidable exposures to WTC toxins. But the political support it has drawn to Congressman Nadler’s effort, most notably from Senator Clinton, offers the possibility of finally compelling the decontamination that can bring to an end what has been for many a toxic nightmare of government deception. Hearings are planned by Senator Clinton, Congressman Nadler and others regarding White House preemption of EPA’s mission.

While there is relief to be had at the truthfulness of Tinsley’s revelation that President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality removed the original EPA press release language that might have led people to protect themselves, there is also recognition that this administration was ruthless in its willingness to place the health of New Yorkers at risk for its own purposes.

EPA’s web site states its mission as, “to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment.” The EPA labor unions’ web site states that White House “interference with the professional work of the EPA Civil Service has seriously harmed EPA’s credibility. Before there is another national emergency, that credibility must be restored.” With public support or protecting the environment running high, this back-handed damage to the professional EPA appears to be a goal of an Administration not committed to EPA’s mission.

Re EPA’s future role, Tinsley cites the Department of Homeland Security’s July 2002 strategy statement: “After a major incident, the Environmental Protection Agency will be responsible for decontamination of affected buildings and neighborhoods and providing advice and assistance to public health authorities in determining when it is safe to return to these areas.” Whether or not that inspires confidence may rest on whether political interference with EPA’s mission persists.

Diesel Pollution and Ground Zero

Intro 191-A, introduced this Fall by Councilmember Alan Gerson and others, requires use of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and advanced filtration for nonroad vehicles doing city construction. One focus is rebuilding at Ground Zero, where nonroad vehicles will be operating for years. For downtowners with 9/11 respiratory problems, nonroad diesel pollution would be a major health hazard.

from Trucks and Buses

With the sweetheart toll-reversal deal on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Downtown is already plagued with diesel fumes from transiting trucks running cross-island toll-free and commuter motor coaches lacking pollution controls jamming the Holland Tunnel area. National Transportation Safety Board’s bus remedy, prescribed in its 1999 report, is greater oversight. But that is complicated by multiple licensing jurisdictions.

from School Buses

Studies show that children are the most vulnerable to diesel pollution’s harm, yet diesel school buses are the nation’s most polluting. School bus pollution is a health and education disaster. A Columbia University study identifies diesel pollution as a trigger for asthma attacks; Childrens’ Aid Society pinpoints asthma attacks as the leading cause of school absences in New York City; studies by Yale and others show pollution readings inside school buses are many times higher than those outside.

EPA has a pollution reduction program for school buses. Yet its public service ads on child asthma finger kittens and teddy bears as asthma triggers but are silent on school buses, missing this opportunity to tell parents school buses must obey the anti-idling law. In July, the New York Association of Pupil Transportation agreed with EPA to retrofit 15,000 buses, mostly school district-owned, to use ultra-low-sulfur diesel and reduce school bus idling. But New York City’s privately-owned school bus companies refused, despite New York State’s offer to fund 1,000 NYC school bus retrofits, saying it might harm their buses.

A City Department of Education spokesman said, “We are identifying 200 buses to retrofit [many school buses are too old to retrofit], and we remind our vendors that their buses should not idle.”

This could be an issue for The Education Mayor.

-Ann Warner Arlen

ARLEN is the immediate past chair of Community Board #2’s environmental committee and was a founding member of “9-11 Environmental Action” www.911ea.org

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