March 11, 2004
Group Is Suing Federal Agency Over Post-9/11 Health Hazards
By ANTHONY DePALMA
The health of tens of thousands of people who live and work in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn has been endangered by the way federal officials mishandled the environmental hazards caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday in United States District Court in Manhattan.
Twelve Manhattan residents and workers sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to follow its own procedures to ensure the area was safe before allowing people to return.
They also accused the agency's former administrator, Christie Whitman, of displaying "a shockingly deliberate indifference to human health" when she issued reassuring statements about air quality downtown that proved to be misleading.
"As a result," according to the lawsuit, a large group of New Yorkers exposed "to hazardous substances for over two years is left with the expense of full and proper cleanup of their residences and workplaces, and is faced with potentially serious long-term health effects."
In a statement, an E.P.A. regional administrator, Jane M. Kenny, said she had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment on it.
Since the dense cloud of dust and debris billowed through Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, contradictory statements about safety and risk have tarnished the reputation of the federal agency. Some residents fear they were deliberately misled by government officials more eager to see normalcy return to the area than to safeguard New Yorkers.
Just last week, federal officials conceded their hope that the formation of a panel of independent experts to oversee the cleanup would help restore lost confidence.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 residents - workers, students and business owners - but it seeks to represent the entire class of people exposed to the hazardous dust. One of the 12, Robert Gulack of Fair Lawn, N.J., a senior lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said he developed severe respiratory problems because improperly cleaned stairways and elevators contaminated his office.
The lawsuit claims the E.P.A. had the regulatory responsibility for cleaning up indoor spaces. Initially, it delegated the task to the city, and then failed to supervise the city's inadequate response, the suit says.
A year after the attack, the federal agency agreed to take over the indoor cleanup. It implemented a voluntary program for residences in a limited area around ground zero. But the area to be cleaned excluded many apartments north of Canal Street and in Brooklyn. Offices were also excluded.
The lawsuit estimates that about 17,000 homes and many workplaces should have been tested for contamination and cleaned. It seeks the thorough testing of affected apartments and offices in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, the creation of a medical fund to pay for health testing of people exposed to the trade center dust, and the reimbursement of people who have paid to have their apartments and businesses cleaned.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company