After the World Trade Center fell, many shaken New
Yorkers took unexpected comfort in numbers. As the mayor's initial order for
10,000 body bags was gradually displaced by an increasingly verifiable estimated
body count, the calamity began, strangely, to feel almost fathomable.
But in recent months, new figures have come to define more enduring fears for
residents and workers in lower Manhattan. For instance, 180,000 gallons of fuel
burned or spilled as the towers collapsed, including 30,000 gallons of
electrical-transformer fluids that contain PCBs. And then there are the hundreds
of thousands of atomized fluorescent bulbs, each containing a few dozen milligrams
of mercury--possibly enough to help explain the high levels of heavy metals that
have kept the headquarters of the Legal Aid Society, across the street from
ground zero, sealed since September 11. A veteran hazardous-waste chemist for the
Environmental Protection Agency now reports that independent testing of dust
inside nearby apartments shows a density of asbestos fibers nine times greater
than had been officially reported--more, even, than at the infamous W.R. Grace
mine-turned-Superfund-site in Libby, Montana.
Literally before the dust had cleared, the administration of New York's
then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani assured a terrified city that the air was safe. On
September 16, the city's health department issued a public statement declaring
that "the general public's risk for any short or long term adverse health
[effects is] extremely low." The same day, EPA Administrator Christie Todd
Whitman volunteered her own bill of clean health: "There's no need for the
general public to be concerned."
Many people who live or work in lower Manhattan are convinced that they have
not been told the truth. They say that they're sick--throats sore, lungs hacking.
Cleanup workers, local residents, and, most of all, firefighters at ground zero
attest to intense respiratory illnesses unlike anything they recall experiencing
Posttraumatic stress in a psychically wounded quarter surely accounts for some
of these reactions; midtown's anthrax panics have already given New York a
powerful lesson in health hysteria. But a persistent trickle of new information
has made it embarrassingly clear that federal, state, and city agencies
responsible for protecting public health and the environment have failed to admit
publicly a very simple fact: No one can yet claim to know the extent of the
"Government pronouncements regarding air quality have emphasized the good
news," says Eric Goldstein, who as co-director of the Natural Resources Defense
Council's Urban Program is undertaking a yearlong study of the environmental
impact of the disaster. "There was an oversimplified message sent that long-term
health standards were being met, and that probably didn't convey the extent of
the situation." The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has
refused to release any information at all, asserting that the World Trade Center
environment is a matter of criminal investigation. While the EPA made public its
findings on asbestos levels early on, the agency didn't supply data related to the
many other substances known to be on the site until the New York City
Environmental Law and Justice Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request
If government officials hoped to minimize fears that lower Manhattan was no
longer a safe place to live or work, they had plenty of help from New York's
media. Virtually the only local source of investigative coverage on environmental
hazards has been Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News.
On October 26, he made the front page with "A Toxic Nightmare at a Disaster
Site," which detailed the EPA tests' findings of notable quantities of hazardous
benzene, as well as dioxin levels discharged from a sewer pipe into the Hudson
River that were more than five times higher than any previously recorded in New
That day, the mayor and EPA officials held a joint press conference to refute
the story; spokespeople claimed that "spikes" in toxin levels did not indicate
potential health hazards. Giuliani's views were more than incidental to the
Daily News, whose executive editor, Michael Goodwin, is married to a
Giuliani appointee and whose editorial-page editor, Richard J. Schwartz,
previously worked in City Hall, where he authored Giuliani's welfare policies.
One late-September editorial was adamant that officials in charge of rebuilding at
the site should minimize environmental reviews and any other "red tape"
Gonzalez's subsequent stories gave New York its only insights into the
witches' brew that cooked, compressed, and dispersed at ground zero. According to
Gonzalez, asbestos-cleanup instructions were dangerously lax, and the PCB content
of transformer-oil spills has not been verified by anyone outside of Con Edison,
the utility that operated a substation behind 7 World Trade Center. But not all
of Gonzalez's reporting has seen print. Since the initial piece, his twice-weekly
column has failed to appear at least seven times. Though he won't comment on why
these columns have been delayed, or exactly what they contained, Gonzalez
acknowledges that this is no ordinary story.
"In 25 years as a reporter, I've never faced as much scrutiny or as much
difficulty getting stories in the paper as I have had around this issue," he says.
"There's been enormous concern expressed by some government officials and some
civic leaders about my reporting, that it's unnecessarily alarming people, and I
believe that some of these government officials are doing a disservice by
unnecessarily saying that things are okay when they really don't know."
The Daily News has been covering the story more aggressively than any
paper in New York, detailing the health problems of undocumented cleanup workers
and, in January, breaking the news that the EPA ombudsman has launched an
investigation into the agency's response to the disaster.
By contrast, The New York Times has run at least 13 stories emphasizing
the safety of the site, even using the headline "Workers and Residents Are Safe,
Officials Say" to characterize a city council hearing that included extensive
expert testimony emphasizing the lack of reliable information. An extensive
mid-October story titled "Dust and Its Effects" stressed that significant health
risks were limited to unprotected workers at ground zero. According to that
story, EPA officials reported "no signs" of dioxins or other toxic organic
compounds. A week and a half later, when the federal agency finally released its
data, the Times clarified that tests indeed found such substances at the
site, though not at levels high enough to prompt health concerns.
Farther from ground zero, reporters have been less shy about seriously
investigating air quality in lower Manhattan. In January, Pulitzer Prize winner
Andrew Schneider published a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
assessing the asbestos hazard and detailing the inadequacy of the instructions
city health officials gave the public (these included the advice to use a wet rag
or mop to clean up fallout dust). A week earlier, The Washington Post had
focused on public-health complaints and the leading independent findings; that
day, the EPA ombudsman announced his investigation.
With the backing of Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, whose
district includes ground zero, EPA ombudsman Robert Martin and his chief
investigator, Hugh Kaufman, are focusing on the environmental agency's insistence
that assessing and cleaning up dust from the disaster are the responsibility of
landlords of nearby apartment and office buildings. The World Trade Center towers
were public buildings, but neither their owner, the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey, nor the city's health department has undertaken indoor testing or
remediation of adjacent sites.
EPA officials contend that measurements taken at the perimeter of ground zero
are indicative of the safety of the surrounding neighborhoods. "People living and
working in the area should take comfort in the fact that EPA air samples of
pollutants such as benzene, dioxin and sulfur dioxide taken at the perimeter of
the work site are either very low or non-detectable," Kathleen Callahan, acting
deputy regional administrator for the agency, told the New York City Council's
environmental committee in early November.
But Kaufman insists that any serious assessment has to focus on indoor dust
and soot, substances that get trapped in buildings' ventilation systems. This
course of inquiry, he asserts, is standard procedure for investigating toxic
hazards whose pervasiveness is unknown. "Asbestos is the least of our concerns,"
says Kaufman. "The EPA has found other substances, like mercury, benzene, dioxins
in the air. What's documented at certain [outdoor] sites doesn't indicate what's
going on in buildings and homes."
Some available information appears to support Kaufman's contention. For
instance, EPA's tests indicated "nondetectable" levels of mercury in air and dust
samples at the perimeter of ground zero even while preliminary private testing by
the owner of Legal Aid's building "showed evidence of heavy metals," according to
Legal Aid spokeswoman Pat Bath.
But the ombudsman may not be able to complete his investigation. In late
November, Whitman announced her intention to place the ombudsman's office under
the direct control of the EPA inspector general--a move that Martin says would
effectively end his autonomy. Martin and the Government Accountability Project
have convinced a federal judge to halt the restructuring temporarily, arguing
that Whitman's ties to Citigroup, whose Travelers Insurance Center could havebeen
liable for millions in cleanup costs as the result of a Martin investigation in
Denver, spurred her to retaliate. The next court hearing has been scheduled for
In the meantime, Martin and Kaufman have come upon an auspicious opportunity
to prove that they really are indispensable: On January 24, they launched an
inquiry into the chlorine dioxide fumigation of the Hart Senate Office Building in
Washington, D.C., where some returning staffers are complaining of headaches,
sore throats, and bad smells.