"Redevelopment" at Ground Zero Hits New Yorkers With Double-Whammy

by Wynde Priddy

More than three years after the historic attacks that ushered in a new global conflict and changed the Manhattan skyline forever, local residents still say that concerns about the health impacts of the disaster for New Yorkers have never been meaningfully addressed. Now many fear that the redevelopment effort underway in the area of Ground Zero will raise still more environmental risks.

Unanswered Questions

When the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, the disaster constituted an environmental hazard of unprecedented scope. As the towers burned and then collapsed, over 10,000 personal computers, hundreds of copy machines, thousands of fluorescent lights, five million square feet of painted surfaces, seven million square feet of flooring, and 600,000 square feet of window glass were vaporized and released into the air. Along with these more expected materials present in this uncontrolled demolition, there were also millions of rounds of lead ammunition used in a Secret Service shooting range, and materials such as arsenic, mercury, and chromium which were housed in a U.S. Customs laboratory in the complex. Concrete, asbestos, jet-fuel, and many other unknowable hazardous materials were incinerated at temperatures exceeding 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit; hot enough to produce toxic gas and ultra-fine particulates, or air-born dust, easily breathable and highly unsafe for humans. Fires continued to burn at the site until Dec. 19. Dr. Michael Weiden, a medical officer for the New York Fire Department, called it "the largest single acute exposure to high-volume particulate matter in a modern urban environment."

Yet the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement on Sept. 16, 2001 that said: "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s Financial District." On Sept. 18, EPA administrator Christie Whitman declared to New Yorkers: "The air is safe to breathe." Public advocates are still asking why these seemingly premature determinations were made. And why were the first responders and Ground Zero recovery workers not informed of–much less adequately protected from–the hazards?

In the weeks following September 11, all EPA press releases were filtered through the White House. In a 2003 report entitled "EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse," the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General found: "It appeared that EPA’s best professional advice was overruled when relaying information to the public in the weeks immediately following the disaster. Politics, it appears, trumped science in the communication of risks to the public."

There have been numerous independent studies and tests that reveal the true nature of the dust that blanketed much of Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. One dust sample tested by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP) showed five percent asbestos, towering above the EPA’s own 1 percent threshold for human risk. An indoor sample of WTC dust taken at 80 John Street five months after September 11 found levels of fibrous glass–a potent carcinogen–ranging from 10 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection told Downtown residents and business owners to just clean up the WTC dust with a wet rag–exposing thousands to life-threatening toxins.

EPA officials contend that they didn’t want to cause mass panic, and that their tests showed only "low levels of asbestos." Critics respond that the conditions around Ground Zero did, in fact, call for extreme caution if not panic, and that even "low levels" of asbestos are still dangerous. They also point to the EPA’s use of outdated testing methods that apparently underestimated the risks; testing methods that were not good enough for their own building at 290 Broadway, which was tested and cleaned using the most advanced methods. An asbestos-removal contractor was brought in to decontaminate the EPA offices, at the same time that local residents were being told to use wet rags.

In the years since the Twin Towers fell, there has been no comprehensive cleanup, no health care program for those who were affected, and no accurate federally-issued statement of the true risks that people living or working near Ground Zero were exposed to in the weeks and months following September 11, according to a new study by the Sierra Club, "Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero." In fact, many first responders are having trouble with their workman’s compensation, and even workers and residents with health insurance are experiencing trouble getting the kind of medical services they need.

Brooklyn stands out as the most neglected community impacted by the disaster. The notion that the East River protected Brooklyn from the massive air-born dust cloud released by the collapse of the towers is easily dismissed by anyone who saw aerial photos of that day. The wind blew a huge plume of WTC dust directly into Brooklyn–yet there were no clean-up services provided to residents of Brooklyn, and virtually no attention paid to the suffering of Brooklynites living with the long-term health effects.

The federally-funded clean-up program was insufficient and poorly implemented all around, critics charge. Cleaning of local residences finally got underway in September 2002–a full year after the contamination. Those outside the small zone of Lower Manhattan covered by the program continued to get the same instructions: clean up the WTC dust with a wet rag. Some could afford professional cleanup, but many couldn’t. And with the EPA downplaying the risks, thousands had unknowingly exposed themselves by cleaning up the dust themselves, even within the zone covered by the program. Chinatown residents, who live in overcrowded conditions and frequently lack facility with the English language, were hit particularly hard by this disaster of judgment. Small businesses also suffered by being excluded from the clean-up. Predictably, most insurance companies refused to pay for testing or clean-up.

Money for Contamination, Not for Clean-Up

Organizations like New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), 9/11 Environmental Action and NYELJP, with U.S. Representatives Carol Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, are advocating on behalf of the thousands who were exposed to WTC toxins. They are also demanding adequate safety measures to be taken in the redevelopment of Ground Zero and the impacted zone now being overseen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), an authority jointly created by the city and state of New York in 2002.

The LMDC has bought two buildings in the area from the Deutsche Bank–one several blocks away from Ground Zero at 4 Albany Street, and one directly across from Ground Zero at 130 Liberty Street which was severely damaged and highly contaminated by the toxic dust and debris. The 40-story building on Liberty Street is the most heavily damaged building to remain standing after September 11, and must be demolished to make way for Freedom Tower, the $11 billion skyscraper, memorial, and transit hub that is slated to stand on the WTC site by 2015.

Plans for this potentially dangerous demolition are being drawn up by the LMDC. Activists and community members are demanding that the EPA carefully oversee the demolition to ensure the safety of both the workers and the area residents. For now, the EPA is only acting as an advisor to the LMDC, which is developing deconstruction plans to submit for EPA approval. In January 2005, the EPA rejected one LMDC submission, saying the plan lacked sufficient protections.

Though the LMDC will continue to submit revised plans, activists continue to demand more direct oversight of the demolition. David Newman, an industrial hygienist with NYCOSH says, "The EPA is the only agency with the experience, expertise, and resources to ensure that such demolition operations are conducted in a manner that protects public health."

More than half of the $2.7 billion of the September 11 recovery money pledged by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has already been spent by the LMDC. While community groups demand that at least a chunk of the remaining $850 million be directed towards addressing health and environmental concerns, and building affordable housing. Meanwhile, the LMDC plans on asking for more money–for the ambitious redevelopment scheme centered around the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower.

"The LMDC keeps going for more funds," says Joel Kupferman, senior attorney at NYELJP and environmental counsel to the Firefighters Union. But he’s not confident that the endowment will bring about a safer redevelopment. "They’d rather send out glossy press releases than test the air," he says, adding that the LMDC’s quasi-private nature has resulted in "a lack of accountability and no elections to worry about."

"I would expect a private landlord to act in a self-serving way," Kupferman concludes. "But the LMDC is publicly funded and we’re alarmed that they’re not meeting a higher standard."


"Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero," Sierra Club, August 2004



9/11 Environmental Action


For more on 9-11’s health impacts, see WW4 REPORT #50

For more on the Ground Zero redevelopment effort, see WW4 REPORT #88


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April. 10, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution