The Living Force

9/11 air fears stifled

Memo: City Hall divided over asbestos danger

Less than a month after 9/11, a top city Health Department official blasted an order from City Hall to reopen several blocks near Ground Zero, and warned that "air quality [for asbestos] at those locations is not yet suitable for reoccupancy," an internal memo shows.
"The Mayor's Office is under pressure from building owners and business owners in the red zone to open more of the city to reoccupancy," wrote Associate Health Commissioner Kelly McKinney in his startling Oct. 6, 2001, memo. At the time, McKinney was in charge of the city's environmental hazards program.

His memo reveals sharp disagreements between health officials and other Giuliani administration aides over how to handle environmental contamination after 9/11.

The memo was obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

McKinney and the Department of Environmental Protection - the city agency in charge of all asbestos testing - appear to have urged a cautious approach to reopening downtown.

In his memo, McKinney noted that DEP Commissioner Joel Miele was also "uncomfortable with opening the target areas" but said, "I was told the Mayor's Office was directing OEM [the Office of Emergency Management] to open the target areas next week."

McKinney, now a deputy commissioner at OEM, did not return repeated calls yesterday, nor did Miele.

Other DEP records that have never received much attention show definite reason for concerns by McKinney and Miele.

DEP's own tests for asbestos in the first week after 9/11, for example, revealed far higher asbestos contamination in lower Manhattan than officials ever acknowledged - and some of the worst test results were never released to the public.

In the five days before Sept. 17, 2001, the day most downtown office workers were allowed by federal and city officials to return to work, DEP tested 38 air samples for asbestos on the streets around the Trade Center site.

Of those, 27 revealed asbestos levels higher than the .01 fibers per cubic centimeter that the DEP was using as a "safety" threshold.

It was not until February 2002 that the city even began publicly posting its own test results on the DEP Web site.

The initial test method for air samples, known as PCM, is sometimes not reliable, so DEP began retesting any sample over .01 fibers by a more exact method that scientists call TEM, for transmission electron microscopy.

The federal TEM standard for asbestos is 70 fibers per square meter.

Of those same 38 tests DEP conducted in the days after 9/11, 18 test filters were so clogged they couldn't even be read under the TEM method. That left only 20 valid test results and eight of them, or 40%, revealed dangerous levels of asbestos in the air.

The highest, at 157 fibers, was found on Sept. 12 at Spruce and Gold Sts., seven blocks from Ground Zero.

On the same day, a level of 123 fibers was found in another test at Centre and Chambers Sts. - right between City Hall and the Municipal Building.

Yet neither of those results has ever been reported by the DEP to the public. The city never disclosed it even conducted tests at those locations.

No wonder that Cate Jenkins, a veteran asbestos scientist at the federal Environmental Protection Agency who reviewed the DEP's test results, accused the city and her own agency of lying to the public.

No wonder former Commissioner Miele was so worried behind closed doors about asbestos levels in lower Manhattan.

"Any allegation that DEP misrepresented or intentionally withheld 9/11-related asbestos data is incorrect," DEP Deputy Commissioner Ann Canty said yesterday.

If the agency failed to post a few test results, Canty said, "it was inadvertent."
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