Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 3. Was environmental health protected on 9/11? Whistleblowers, watchdogs and wee little people >Flip-flopping on cars

Flip-flopping on cars


For awhile, EPA started to exert its strength on environmental health, stepping in to butt heads with the city Department of Health over the issue of Ground Zero dust-contaminated cars. Hundreds of cars extracted from the parking garages around the collapsed buildings, the agency said, should now to be destroyed because of asbestos contamination, according to Greg Gittrich, writing for the New York Daily News, (5/14/02). (19)


The New York City Department of Health told Newsweek it would honor the EPA’s request, but that its decision to release the autos was based on careful review of numerous environmental tests.


“The data indicates that there is no significant risk to human health,” Kelly McKinney, the NYC Department of Health’s Associate Commissioner for Environmental Health was quoted saying. “The fundamental way we work is to gather as much data as we can, to look at that data, compare it with whatever standards are available, compare it with our knowledge of the issues, and that’s what we did with this issue as we have with every World Trade Center issue.”


Earlier, Newsweek reported, New York’s then-health commissioner Neal Cohen in December said that “the cars’ engines and bodies were contaminated with dangerous World Trade Center debris and would not be returned. Two months later, after owners of the vehicles sued the city to get them back, city officials reversed themselves and said they would release the autos—along with written instructions on how to clean them.” (20)


But this little feud between agencies was just one instance of many confusing inconsistencies in how the agencies applied environmental and health standards at the World Trade Center. Such jurisdictional conflicts and quandaries abound, according to Cate Jenkins, author of “A Documentary Basis for Litigation,” a compilation of hundreds of decisions and statements by agencies regarding the environmental health issues confronted at Ground Zero.


If EPA was cleaning asbestos-contaminated dusts in Libby, Montana, why did the agency not think it should address the issue of indoor contamination around the World Trade Center? If both the New York City Health Department and the EPA were to condemn asbestos-contaminated cars as unsafe, why were dust-covered buildings and apartments considered safe? If OSHA’s chief said that all dust should be “presumed to contain asbestos” were so many tests thought to be useful for residents? If children or the elderly, or those with respiratory problems were deemed at special risk from respiratory hazards, according to the city Health Department, why were pregnant women considered not at risk? If FEMA grants were given to professionally clean buildings, why was it okay for residents to do it on their own?


“It’s like that line from the film Casablanca. ‘Round up the usual suspects!’  But the usual suspects weren’t the problem.”


Indeed, as many reporters, like Andrew Schneider, a staff writer with The St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote, people living on the lower part of the island felt abandoned by the city, fed so many bits of conflicting information by different agencies.


“The agencies really didn’t know what they were doing,” says Kim Todd. “They seemed to not have a clue.” Residents, she said, did their own tests and came up with substances that the agencies couldn’t even identify, let alone certify as safe, says Todd. “I found something called kaolin. What is that?”


While asbestos removal seemed to be a highly technical procedure, and workers were warned of asbestosis, why was it suddenly safe for downtown residents, Todd wondered. “My uncle was an asbestos worker and died of it. No one will know until ten years from now how sick we’ll be.”


Tammy Meltzer, leader of the tenants' association at Gateway Plaza on the edge of Ground Zero, told The Boston Globe that city-hired cleaners had removed dust from the residences in October and November 2001 before occupants were allowed to return. "But the fires were still burning in late December," Meltzer told the Globe. "Nobody came back to do any retesting. We don't know if our apartments are safe."

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