For New Yorkers living in lower Manhattan, the abandoned, black-shrouded 40-story building across from Ground Zero has for years been a reminder of how the collapsing twin towers emitted a vast blanket of environmental contamination that may still affect nearby residents and workers. On the morning of September 11, 2001, a falling section of 2 World Trade Center ripped open a 15-story hole in the Deutsche Bank Building, which allowed toxic dust and ashes to pour in. According to a damage report prepared for Deutsche Bank in 2003, asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins and carcinogenic PCBs penetrated the building, snaking their way into interior stairwells, elevator shafts, wall cavities and ventilation systems. In the months that followed, mold also proliferated, contributing to what the report described as "a combination of contaminants ... unparalleled in any other building designed for office use."
After a lengthy battle involving insurers and downtown-rebuilding officials, Deutsche Bank last year sold the building to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), which plans to begin demolishing the structure as soon as possible. Although business officials are eager to remove what many view as a tombstonelike reminder of 9/11, residents and visitors alike are concerned that the demolition will only add to the woes of the neighborhood, where hundreds of thousands of people work and live, including a legion of Wall Street employees who are vital to the nation's economy. To understand the environmental impact, NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo spoke with Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist who coordinates the World Trade Center Health and Safety Project for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: It's been more than three years since the attack. Why is it taking so long to deal with the Deutsche Bank Building?
Dave Newman: Actually, they're about to take down three buildings: the Deutsche Bank Building, which is now owned by the [LMDC], a building at 4 Albany Street that is still owned by Deutsche Bank and a building called Fiterman Hall, which is part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College. One reason it took so long to deal with them is that there are, and there have been, disputes as to the efficacy of cleaning them up versus taking them down. In all three of these cases, the buildings are heavily contaminated.
Would you be concerned about the demolition if you lived in lower Manhattan?
There are actually three populations I have concerns about: one is residents in the area; two would be workers in the area, who are residents during the time of their workday, and third would be workers involved in the demolition process itself.
Why the demolition workers?
There are an array of contaminants including asbestos; lead; mercury and other heavy metals; PAH's, which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (combustion byproducts); silica; dioxin--I guess those are the heavy hitters. The workers have the highest potential for exposure, and if they are exposed, they will be exposed in higher concentration than anyone else in the community. In some ways, [those] workers are the canaries for the community.
The demolition of any high-rise building in and of itself is a cause for concern because of the potential for unintended releases--which means anything that's contained in the building can ultimately make its way outside if it's not properly controlled. When you add to the mix the World Trade Center contamination ... if I lived or worked downtown, I'd want to know this demolition is proceeding with the most stringent controls possible to prevent any emissions to the outside of potentially harmful substances.
Are you saying the demolitions are a bad idea?
No, the demolitions are manageable if they're done right. My concern is not that they can't be done, but that they be done right.
Who is overseeing them?
There are a variety of agencies involved at the state, local and federal level, including [New York City's] Department of Buildings, New York City's Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and OSHA [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. As of yet, unfortunately, there's no coordinated effort on the part of government agencies to oversee these demolitions on a proactive basis.
It seems like there's been a lack of leadership for dealing with most post-September 11 environmental concerns. Overall, we still don't have a lot of clear answers about the extent of contamination or which agencies are in charge of cleaning it up.
I think the response after 9/11, while it was sincere and heroic and extensive, it was not coordinated between government agencies and not necessarily well thought out, although well intentioned. This kind of event was not really anticipated and as a result we had agencies either fighting over jurisdiction or fighting to avoid responsibility. The result was a vacuum of information.
Where do you think the leadership should have come from?
I don't think there's a lot that an individual resident or worker can do. I think the burden should be appropriately on government agencies like EPA, like OSHA, like the Department of Health, to be prepared to conduct an aggressive and transparent outreach effort so that people will be informed appropriately and honestly of what the health risks could be. They need to inform people about the appropriate way to deal with dust or debris in their apartments. That information was not conveyed at all, or when it was conveyed, it was conveyed incorrectly. The EPA should have taken responsibility as the lead agency for the entire post-September 11 cleanup. And again with these demolitions, they have an opportunity to assert clear leadership.
In 2002, the EPA began addressing indoor residential spaces. Now, the contaminated buildings are an issue. Are there still more environmental hazards that haven't yet been dealt with?
We don't know. There's been no effort on the part of the EPA or the part of other government agencies to coordinate, centralize and evaluate their sampling results. That means we don't have a good characterization of what was in the outdoor air. And because most of the indoor sampling and cleanup was done privately, we don't have complete records of that either. So the best information or the most information that was available was in private hands, and there's been no attempt to collect that.
What lessons have we learned--or should we have learned--in terms of being prepared for future disasters?
In a catastrophe, the first people on the scene and providing assistance may well be teachers, janitors, security guards, workers from an adjacent construction site. I think we have to expand the population of first responders and give people like this adequate training. [Another] lesson is that the response network and the regulatory framework that were in place [prior to 9/11] were inadequate to deal with catastrophes of this sort, and they still are. More attention needs to be paid to figuring out the chain of command, the coordination and the responsibility of government agencies [for dealing with disasters], even in the absence of specific regulations.