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Gotham Gazette -- Environmental Aftermath

Paying Attention to Cities

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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Barack Obama's early pronouncements, from creating a White House Office of Urban Policy to promising bold new investments in infrastructure, education and alternative energy, suggest that the new president understands something that many of his recent predecessors clearly did not: what's good for cities is good for America.

New York, the nation's biggest city by population and economic activity, could greatly benefit from a president who is committed to ending years, if not decades, when the federal government all but turned its back on the needs of urban communities. Even before the current economic downturn, the city lacked the resources to adequately address mounting problems of aging public infrastructure, housing shortages, traffic congestion, environmental pollution and growing economic inequality. While these problems can't all be placed at the feet of officials in Washington, the federal government has long underfunded programs that primarily benefit city dwellers. In the last eight years, things got even worse for New York.

Federal support for mass transit stayed roughly flat since the start of the decade, even as ridership in numerous cities - including New York - surged to record levels. The Bush administration drastically reduced funding for public housing, contributing to rent hikes, service cutbacks and a nearly $6 billion backlog in capital work at the New York City Housing Authority, whose buildings are home to more than 400,000 low-income New Yorkers. The administration also underfunded the project-based Section 8 program by nearly $3 billion, dealing a profound blow to one of the nation's most critical affordable housing programs at a time when demand for low-income housing in New York far outstrips supply. And it cut funding for the nation's workforce development system by roughly $2 billion, with New York City's job training and youth employment services taking a disproportionately large hit. Perhaps most galling, New York was consistently shortchanged in homeland security funding.

Washington's disdain for the priorities of cities like New York was not limited to traditional areas of concern to urban advocates. The absence of federal leadership on issues such as immigration, health care, energy policy, scientific research and access to higher education also adversely affected the five boroughs in countless ways.

Reciprocal Relations

New York could use a helping hand from Washington, especially in these tough economic times. While the Bloomberg administration has made progress in several areas, only the federal government can provide the resources and leadership needed to help the city accomplish its housing development goals, expand the transit system or make the city more energy efficient.

But, more than ever, the country also needs New York. In today's global economy, the nation's singular international city is inextricably linked to that of the country.

Obama, himself a lifelong resident of cities, has sent some encouraging signals that he understands this dynamic and plans to free up more resources to strengthen urban areas. But just what should he do to help New York?

A Plan for the City

Last week, the Center for an Urban Future published a report that laid out 51 specific recommendations for what the Obama administration and the 111th Congress could do to help New York.

Our recommendations started with the premise that one of the most critical jobs of the federal government today is keeping New York safe. This means allocating anti-terror funds to localities based on risktheyface rather than politics, moving aggressively to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, passing legislation to get illegal guns off the street and enacting bills already proposed in Congress that would pay for thousands of additional cops in New York and other cities.

Another critical priority is helping New York and other cities maintain and upgrade their existing transportation infrastructure. Specifically, the Obama administration should dramatically increase the share of federal transportation funding that goes to mass transit, fund Amtrak at a level that enables vast improvement to intercity rail service, accelerate plans to develop and implement a more technologically advanced air traffic control system that would reduce flight delays and include more ferry projects in federal transportation infrastructure packages.

On economic development, Obama could help New York by increasing federal investment in microlending programs as a way to support the smallest entrepreneurs. A renewed federal commitment to scientific research would also go a long way given that New York is home to one of the world's largest concentrations of academic research institutions.

On housing, the president should restore funding for public housing, meet federal commitments to the project-based Section 8 program and help spur the creation of new supportive housing for the mentally ill.

There are many other things the new president could do, from taking immediate steps to ensure that the 2010 Census does not undercount New York and creating a large-scale nationwide effort to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient, to expanding the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and streamlining the visa process to make it easier for artists to enter the country.

Others will undoubtedly have different ideas. The important thing is for New Yorkers to realize that having a friendlier audience in Washington is only the first step. Rather than simply waiting for Obama-or Adolfo Carrion, the Bronx borough president, who will reportedly head the new Office of Urban Policy-to set an agenda, New York's policymakers and champions should be helping to frame the national debate about what a more enlightened urban policy should look like and crafting a set of policy recommendations that federal officials could run with from the get-go.

Jonathan Bowles is director of the Center for an Urban Future



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Environmental Aftermath

By Michael Burger

Many of the people closest to the World Trade Center relief efforts are not satisfied with how government agencies are handling the cleanup. There appear to be a lot of gaps. In particular, residents, workers and advocates have expressed concern about the lack of coordination, and the lack of information, on environmental health issues at Ground Zero and the neighborhoods around it.

"People feel like they are not getting a clear picture from the authorities," says Foster Maer, a downtown resident and member of the Warren-Murray Street Task Force. "To the extent that information is being released people are not getting it. And there is probably a lot of information not even being released."

The federal, state and city governments have hundreds of people monitoring air quality in and around the site. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring for asbestos and particulate matter in the air, and for asbestos in the dust. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is monitoring for carbon and fine particulate matter in the air. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is in on the action as well.

Yet, in the last two weeks it has become increasingly apparent that the government scientists are not looking for precisely the right thing, or, if they are, they are not releasing that information to the public.

Dr. Paul Lioy of the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey announced last week that he had found levels of lead in dust samples from around the World Trade Center disaster area that may pose a threat to the public health. At a public meeting at New York University, Dr. Lioy characterized the levels as "moderate", and said that the lead needs to be removed from homes and buildings, especially where children are likely to come across it. He advised homeowners to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid, and that renters approach their building managers.

At the same meeting, Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Mt. Sinai Medical Center reported that fiberglass is one of the main constituents in air and dust samples at Ground Zero. Fiberglass is a suspected carcinogen. It also causes significant irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. In a telephone interview, Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Health, explained that NYCOSH has found fiberglass to comprise five to 95 percent of the weight of outdoor samples taken in the area, and 30 to 50 percent of indoor samples taken from a Church Street location across from the World Trade Center. Loewenherz pointed out that there are no state or federal standards for levels of fiberglass or for fiberglass cleanup. "There are guidelines [for cleanup] by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, but OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulates it as if it were regular, household dust."

And, in a third development, an independent study by Virginia-based toxicology firm HP Environmental has shown higher levels of asbestos in the fallout dust than previously measured. The study, which used an EPA-approved test, found that the force of the explosions shattered the asbestos into fibers so small that they slipped under the agency's radar. Scientists and public health experts are unsure about the health risk. Some argue that the smaller fibers do not possess the pine-cone shape of the larger fibers, and therefore are unlikely to scrape the lungs in the same way and lead to the same results. Others argue that the smaller fibers will more easily lodge deep in the lungs. EPA has not released any information on the smaller asbestos or HP Environmental's study.

Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project is pressing the EPA to release information on these and other substances, including dioxins, PCBs and other toxins which may be released from burning wood, paper, plastics, vinyl-coated wiring and cable, urethane foam upholstery, vinyl floor tile, synthetic fiber carpets, or oils from old fluorescent light ballasts; and carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides, which may be released with the smoke and gases. In addition, a report from the project points out that while some scientists believe that the freon from the Trade Center's air conditioning system escaped during the initial explosions, others say that pockets of freon remain and may have converted to phosgene, also known as nerve gas.

Part of the problem in organizing an effective cleanup of the area is that the collapse of the Twin Towers seems to have created something like a new form of particulate matter, a minute dust smaller than anything regulated by EPA. There are no standards for this material, which like other fine dust and soot dries out the lungs and makes them susceptible to opportunistic organisms.

CLEANING UP

Many of the workers at Ground Zero, perhaps tricked by not seeing the fine particles in the air, do not wear gas masks or other respiratory protection. Dr. Moline of Mt. Sinai reported that there have been reports of new onset asthma and reactive airways, an asthma-like condition that arises from sudden exposures to toxic materials. In addition, she said, there have been many reports of increased irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. But nobody is enforcing federal cleanup laws on the site, which, under other circumstances, may have been listed as a federal Superfund site and subject to rigorous hazardous waste cleanup regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not performed tests whose results could compel employers to make workers use respiratory protection. Indeed, OSHA has claimed status as an advisory agency, rather than an enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the regional administrator from OSHA was unavailable to comment on the legal basis for the administration's decision.

As the science trickles in and new threats come to light, the city is left to consider what cleanup standards should be used in apartments and offices, and who should pay for it. Anecdotal evidence paints a chaotic picture of downtown: insurers tell tenants they will not cover cleanup unless levels exceed EPA levels; tenants do not trust building managers; building managers clean up the apartment but leave the balcony untouched; people have been seen sweeping dust from the roof into the air.

"At this point, the non-economic problem, and there are a host of economic problems, but the non-economic problem is that the burden of the cleanup and the assurance that it is done properly has been dumped on the private sector," says Alan Gerson, the Democratic candidate for City Council in District 1. "What we have is a process of self-certification, which is a problem in normal times. Now it is just inappropriate."

Ordinarily, asbestos cleanup is a quarantined procedure which employs plastic sheets to contain the affected area and negative air pressure to make sure nothing escapes. Workers have full-face respirators, suits that cover their whole bodies, and gloves. After the cleanup, workers take their clothes off and put them into labeled bags that are taken straight to a landfill. "The whole point is to make sure asbestos does not get disturbed and spread more widely, and to make sure the workers do not breathe it in," says Lowell Peterson, legal counsel to Local 78, the asbestos, lead and hazardous waste abatement union. "A lot of the cleanups are being done without any of those protections."

Yet, air samples taken by EPA in rooms with dust on the floors show levels above EPA's clearance standard for asbestos. Of 143 bulk samples in Lower Manhattan, 109 have had detectable asbestos, and 37 of those 109 are above EPA?s standard for defining asbestos-containing material. Of course, the other 72 also had asbestos, and even borderline levels of asbestos in dust present significant threats to health. During cleanup the asbestos is liable to get kicked up into the air and linger for days. The EPA's standard levels for asbestos were meant to address tiles and other seemingly stable materials, not dust. In the present situation, asbestos fibers are so tiny that the only way they will remain on the floor of an apartment or office is if no doors or windows are open, and no one enters the room. Whoever is cleaning up any of these rooms will be exposed to high levels.

"What we need is a coordinated, concerted cleanup effort for lower Manhattan under the auspices of a city agency or authority," says Gerson. "We need block-by-block, building-by-building certification. Like what the city is doing with the crime effort, and what it is doing with removal from Ground Zero. It is not that the city should clean every office, but the city should see to it that every apartment and rooftop is clean."

Other Resources

Michael Burger writes Gotham Gazette's Environmental Topic Page.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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