EPA to Scale Back Testing at Ground Zero

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

NEW YORK, Nov. 29 -- The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it will no longer test for World Trade Center dust contamination in Brooklyn and north of Canal Street in Manhattan, a reduced testing plan that has outraged many politicians and health advocates.

The $7 million testing plan also excludes buildings slated for demolition. The EPA will test for four toxic contaminants -- asbestos, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, and man-made vitreous fibers -- released when the twin towers collapsed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

If enough apartments or offices test positive for contamination, the EPA will send in cleanup crews. The agency lacks authority to require landlords to conduct cleanups.

"This testing and cleanup plan is a breathtaking slap at the residents and workers of Lower Manhattan," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Tuesday. "Once again, EPA is quite callously demonstrating that the health and safety of those affected by 9/11 are simply not a priority."

The fires at Ground Zero burned for three months, and western Brooklyn sat directly within the smoke-and-dust plume from the World Trade Center. But EPA officials said that their tests have not been able to distinguish between World Trade Center contamination and the dust and detritus of normal urban life.

"We would prefer to go further, but the science won't let us," said E. Timothy Oppelt, an EPA official who has chaired an expert technical review panel intended to guide the testing. "We can't be whimsical."

The EPA also announced Tuesday that it is shutting down Oppelt's review panel -- which includes toxicologists, doctors, environmentalists and residents. The committee was supposed to meet monthly but has not convened since July.

The panel will hold a final meeting in December, and that meeting will be shorter than usual.

"It's crucial for this panel to continue," said Suzanne Mattei, New York City executive of the Sierra Club, which has issued several studies on Ground Zero-related contamination. "If we can't get a proper response after a disaster of this magnitude, what's the point of having a federal government?"

EPA officials described Tuesday's decision as strictly routine and guided by science. But the EPA's performance and candor has come under fire since the first days after Sept. 11, 2001. Then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said, "I am glad to reassure the people of New York that their air is safe to breathe."

At that time EPA tests at Ground Zero had already found elevated levels of dioxin, PCBs, lead and chromium, all of which are toxic. Later, the EPA found benzene, a colorless liquid that evaporates quickly and can cause leukemia in long-term exposure, measuring 58 times greater than federal limits. The EPA did not release these results for two weeks, in what a spokeswoman described at the time as an oversight.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) forced the EPA to establish the review panel, and she called its disbanding "unacceptable."

"The panel has not even begun to meet its mandate to identify unmet public health needs," she said.

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