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January 10th, 2006

What If They Poisoned our Neighborhood and Nobody Told Us?

by Yori Yanover

Politicians and scientists say the Environmental Protection Agency is reneging on its post-9/11 promises. A friend of mine was at work on Church Street the morning of 9/11. He was in the much-photographed crowd running uptown, away from the bellowing clouds of crushed masonry and burnt interiors. He later described those clouds as a mythical, yellowish beast, roaring up the Manhattan canyon after its victims. Those of us who lived here at the time will never forget the permanent pillar of greasy soot that emanated from the urban valley of the shadow of death. It permeated everything, physical as well as psychic.

Nearly four and a half years later, after what we thought had been a massive cleaning and rebuilding effort, it turns out that the roaring beast may never have left. About a dozen journalists and a similar number of scientists and political activists braved a Friday morning snow storm last month, to gather in Congressman Jerry Nadler’s downtown office (on Houston and Varick), where New York’s Junior Senator, Hillary Clinton, alongside Nadler, blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for reneging on its commitment to clean up Lower Manhattan.

‘The plan announced by EPA was extremely disappointing,’ Senator Hillary told us. ‘It ignores many of the concerns of residents and workers who experienced the fallout from the collapse of the World Trade Center first hand, as well as the advice of the independent experts who served on the panel.’

According to Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld, who lives in East River Houses, and is a board certified occupational/environmental physician, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University Medical Center, and has been serving on a 21-member advisory panel to the EPA, it all began when the feds went a bit mad-hatter.

‘The EPA has hinged their cleanup efforts on developing a chemical signature which would determine whether asbestos, mercury, or any other contaminant discovered in the tested area came from the WTC collapse,’ Wilkenfeld explains. In essence, the agency was saying, ‘We only want to spend the Federal Emergency Management Agency funds set aside for the 9/11 cleanup on 9/11 contaminants. If we find something that preceded 9/11, we won’t touch it.’

The EPA went ahead and spent a lot of money identifying a signature: The manmade mineral fiber slagwool, which was, they claim, present in the Trade Towers and not elsewhere in downtown Manhattan. ‘They decided, if we find slagwool near deposits of asbestos and other contaminants, we have to clean it up, because it’s there as a result of 9/11,’ says Wilkenfeld.

The problem was that the data on the slagwool signature was rejected by the EPA’s own peer review panel of six scientists. The EPA’s hired panel, much like the volunteer panel on which Wilkenfeld was serving, at the behest of City Councilmember Alan Gerson, were also aghast at other problems in the agency’s plan of action. ‘Their boundaries are very tight,’ explains Wilkenfeld. ‘They’re excluding the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Brooklyn. There will be no testing north of Canal Street.’ Congressman Nadler joked that the EPA might be imagining a 30,000-foot high wall north of Canal Street, blocking the advance of poison particles beyond Zone One.

And they’re not testing work places, only residential buildings, maintains Wilkenfeld, ‘although, interestingly enough, the EPA did test their own office building.’ The testing, restricted to residences, is voluntary. ‘Now, what’s the incentive for a landlord ‘ other than a co-op, which is tenant-owned ‘ to test his building and discover that it’s contaminated?’ Wilkenfeld is asking.

This and other aspects of the EPA’s decision making process may be tested in court soon. According to Congressman Nadler, there are a few lawsuits already pending.

Back in March, 2004, a group of 12 Manhattan residents and workers filed a class action suit against the EPA for its alleged failure to ensure that environmental hazards resulting from the collapse of the WTC had been properly removed before it allowed residents back into the area. Senator Clinton and Congressman Nadler described the EPA actions in that instance as blatant deception. Our own Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld is a bit more reserved when he suggests the EPA’s information at the time was not consistent with the truth.

Is the same EPA, which placed in jeopardy the health of thousands of New Yorkers back in 2001, about to condemn the rest of us to long-term health risks? It depends, according to Wilkenfeld, on where you live. A satellite image of the smoke plume which emanated from ground zero after the bombing, clearly shows it drifting westward, away from Chinatown, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn’s West Side. But does this mean that less visible poisonous particles didn’t get past Canal Street?

‘We suggested that the dividing line of Canal Street was a little bit silly,’ says Wilkenfeld. ‘Ideally we should have done concentric circle testing, to determine the radius of the contamination. But they don’t want to do that.’

This article originally appeared in The Grand Street News

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