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Unique challenges


Typically, OSCs go into hazardous situations needing to monitor for a particular toxic chemical or set of chemicals—as might be of concern in a hazardous truck spill on the highway. But this mode was not adopted.


“Our initial response wasn’t viewed as a hazmat response,” says Touw. “When you have something like gas venting or a tank car derailed with a hole in it and spilling, then you evacuate the area, and neutralize it to stop it. ”


The pollution threat here was quite different. Here there were huge plumes of fumes and dust laced with unknown chemicals.


“In this situation, the problem was a huge volume of debris with small amounts of hazardous materials, as well as large plumes of smoke containing unknown byproducts of so many things—burning plastics, carpets, computer parts,” says Touw. It was difficult to say how much PCB or heavy-metal content might be present or  “could be burned off,” he says.


What rescue workers and New Yorkers might be breathing as a result of the fallout at Ground Zero was only one of many concerns Touw was “tasked with.” Within several days EPA had dispatched ten special vacuum truck equipped with HEPA filters to clean dust off the streets of Lower Manhattan.


Also unique to this disaster for EPA’s Touw was the vast range of environmental-oriented tasks needing to be addressed. Besides air and dust monitoring there was also:



Touw and his team would erect what was called the “Taj Mahal,” the largest test for workers ever built, a 31,000 square foot heated area where workers could wash off their hands and face and boots, shower, and get a hot meal. “It was a dome the size of a football field,” Touw recalls, a structure for which $75 million was earmarked by FEMA, capable of serving 10,000 people per day, 24/7, for four months.


After it was built, of course, the dome would house respirators, booties, military tents, water for rehydrating equipment—and equipment for “disposal of all that stuff.” Early on, Touw remembers they were instructed not to call them “decontamination” stations.


Planning for this winterized ‘biosphere’ dome on the night of September 16th, Touw remembers, “We pulled an all-nighter.”


If Region II emergency personnel would be stretched, so would the agency as a whole, as former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman would argue in her testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works September 24, 2002. EPA, she said, “responded to three national incidents” simultaneously: not just at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania crash and would be responding to the anthrax attacks too.


September 11th was unprecedented in yet another way—perhaps for the first time, government coffers were laid wide open.


But EPA and other agencies were not stretched financially at all.

September 11th was unprecedented in yet another way—perhaps for the first time, government coffers were laid wide open, as the President and Congress enacted a $40 billion emergency response package to help deal with the tragic events of September 11. The funding, according to the government, would “ensure that the U.S. had the resources to respond to and recover from the attacks and to protect national security.”

Photo: Earl Dotter

By early October, billions of dollars were released to assist in New York and the other impacted areas—and more funding was headed to both disaster sites as well as a dozen agencies involved.

With $2 billion, FEMA supported overall emergency assistance in New York and other affected jurisdictions. This went to pay the costs of such items as debris removal and

emergency protective measures, as well as individual and family assistance, search and rescue, and other disaster assistance efforts.

In this authorization, the President gave FEMA “an unprecedented level of assistance.” For example, the President gave FEMA enough funding to pay for 100 percent of public assistance activities in New York and at the Pentagon (typically, states pay 25 percent of these costs). This would mark “the first time FEMA covered the entire share of public assistance expenses,” according to the text of an October 3 White House fact sheet on responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

That filtered down to city agencies as well.

“For the first time I can remember, we didn’t have any resource constraints,” recalls the city DOH’s McKinney. “I could call anyone and say, I need this or that; there was no problem with contracting processes.”