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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Monitors

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood reports from the World Trade Center wreckage, on efforts by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to monitor air and water quality in and near the site. Private firms are also cleaning up potentially hazardous materials at offices and buildings that survived the attacks of September 11th.



CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood at the World Trade Center disaster site in New York, at the staging area for the Environmental Protection Agency. In the days and weeks ahead the EPA will monitor air and water quality in the area to help guard public heath. Immediately after the towers collapsed the call went out to the EPA to assess the environmental hazards for the rescue and cleanup workers.

FERRIOLA: It was chaos in my mind.

CURWOOD: Mike Ferriola was part of the first response team of the EPA on September 11th..

FERRIOLA: I arrived with three other EPA employees, and when we got here, which was about 11 o'clock, we tried to approach ground zero and wound up being held up. It was almost like it was snowing, there was so much dust in the air. People were running in fear of other buildings collapsing.

CURWOOD: So, what did you do?

FERRIOLA: What did we do? (laughs) When the people were running, we were running too. Later on in the day, when things calmed down a little bit, we started to collect some dust samples of the material that had fallen out over the day.

CURWOOD: The good news: despite choking dust clouds and the acrid odor of burning plastic, out of four samples, three showed no concentrated toxic materials. Mike Ferriola did find one sample of dust containing an elevated level of asbestos, used to insulate part of the buildings. Asbestos can cause fatal lung diseases. Health officials quickly posted fact sheets urging rescue and recovery workers to wear respirators. At first, many ignored the advice.

FERRIOLA: You know, initially there was incredible, almost animal ferocity in terms of attacking the rubble to try to find the brotherhood, the firemen and police, and now they're sort of being more attentive to those things.

CURWOOD: Life at ground zero has settled in almost a routine for the EPA crews, and they are standing by for requests from the workers digging into the massive amount of rubble. Dave Charters is a senior member of the team that fields these requests.

CHARTERS: What they do is they uncover shafts, and the request is, is it safe to go down in that shaft? And what we do is we lower equipment down in that shaft, and check the air quality in there, and give them that answer right away, knowing what those results are, so they can turn around and get into those void spaces and look around for people.

CURWOOD: I know any chemical could be a problem, but is there a short-list of what you're most likely to be worried about?

CHARTERS: In those situations where it's a question of really is there enough oxygen down there in the first place? If there is enough oxygen, what are the other things that could be potentially in it? That's why we have the mobile laboratory here, which is the white at the end of the pier there. So, we bring it three blocks up, run it through on an immediate time basis. The bags get there, it's immediately plugged into the machine, we get readings in minutes, get those results back down to them.

CURWOOD: A few blocks away from the collapsed and burned out World Trade Center buildings, a massive cleanup is also going on.

HARVEY: There was virtually a tidal wave of dust going down the narrow alleys which served as sort of a conduit to channel and funnel and actually speed up some of the dust which traveled practically down to the river.

CURWOOD: David Harvey is vice president of Tradewinds, a private company that cleans up homes and businesses in the wake of natural and environmental disasters. Hundreds of Tradewinds workers are cleaning the inches of dust that caked the inside and outside of buildings close to ground zero that remain standing.

HARVEY: What you may see when you see our people working, is you're going to see them cleaning every bit. They're cleaning every little corner. It's almost using a toothbrush, and they're doing it over and over again.

CURWOOD: Working around the clock, so far they have cleaned up more than a dozen companies, including banks, restaurants and utilities.


CURWOOD: Meanwhile, back at ground zero there is plenty of work ahead. The EPA continues to monitor both indoor and outdoor air quality, as well as using high efficiency vacuums to suck up samples of ash and dust in the streets and on sidewalks, and checking to see if any plumes of pollution show up in the Hudson River. Again, David Charters of the EPA:

CHARTERS: I've been at this 22 years and this is a very different disaster than anything we've dealt with in the past. We've gone from Exxon Valdez, the Love Canal, the Gulf War. This is just a different scale, and looking at this, we're working our way back to normal.

CURWOOD: Whether it takes weeks, months or even years to get back to normal is a guessing game. Still, Mr. Charters is not discouraged.

CHARTERS: Everybody's been just wonderful on this, from the people doing it. One unsung group on this is the sanitation department for New York, which I'm sure nobody particularly thinks about, has just done unbelievable work on clearing this up. I mean, the stuff from around, it was just feet deep. And it's just gone.




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