The Environmental Impacts of the World Trade Center Attacks
A Preliminary Assessment
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center constitute perhaps the worst episode in the history of New York City. The death toll of nearly 3,000 persons is greater by far than any other New York calamity. Indeed, with the exception of the Civil War battle of Antietam, more lives were lost on September 11th than on any other day in the nation's history. i September 11th also caused huge economic dislocations to the city and the nation. According to the New York City Comptroller's Office, the economic cost to the city in just the current and next fiscal years could be as high as $90 to $105 billion dollars. ii And, as if all this were not enough, the events of September 11th resulted in a significant environmental health emergency, particularly for those who live and work in Lower Manhattan.
At the same time, the events of September 11th brought out the best in New Yorkers. Thousands of heroes -- firefighters, police officers, Port Authority staff, emergency medical personnel, and many other government workers -- displayed their skills that day, including hundreds who made the ultimate sacrifice. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani demonstrated personal courage and leadership during a period when his fellow citizens needed it most. And residents of New York City and the region also rose to the occasion -- pulling together in an unprecedented spirit of cooperation and support for our city and our nation.
It is in that spirit that NRDC is issuing this report. This document is NRDC's first written evaluation of the environmental consequences of the attacks of September 11th. The purpose of the report is to lay out the facts, as best as we know them at this point, regarding both the environmental impacts of the attacks and response of government officials to the ensuing environmental emergency. This analysis, completed five months after the attacks, is not intended to cast blame, but to report on, and learn from, what happened to our environment on September 11th. Consistent with that objective, it also sets forth recommendations for improving New York's readiness for future environmental health emergencies.
There is still much that is not known about specific environmental conditions on and after September 11th. Accordingly, this report is a preliminary study and not intended as a definitive analysis of the environmental impacts of September 11th. In fact, such an analysis may not be available for years -- until after long-term health studies such as those now being undertaken by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Mount Sinai's School of Medicine and others are complete, and after additional monitoring data have been produced and analyzed. Recognizing such limitations, NRDC intends to release a follow-up analysis in September 2002.
In preparing this preliminary report, NRDC followed a straightforward methodology. First, we contacted city, state, and federal environmental and health agencies to obtain air pollution monitoring data, official press releases and other documents related to the September 11th disaster. (Much of this data were ultimately posted on the websites of the agencies.) We also spoke to consultants who conducted their own environmental monitoring for various businesses, schools, residential buildings and apartments. iii Finally, we conducted numerous telephone interviews with employees of various government agencies, independent medical experts at leading academic institutions, other environmental health specialists, and representatives of the Lower Manhattan community.
The remainder of this report is divided into five chapters. In Chapter I, we describe environmental impacts of the September 11th attacks on Lower Manhattan, its residents, and workers. In Chapter II, we discuss the response of government agencies to the environmental health emergency that followed in the wake of the attacks. In Chapter III, we outline, in preliminary form, the air pollution impacts of September 11th. In Chapter IV, we summarize the impacts of the waste disposal and clean-up operations associated with the World Trade Center attacks, as well as effects of the disaster on New York's waterways and drinking water supply. Finally, in Chapter V, we outline recommendations for government action based on our initial research and analysis.
Summary of Findings
- The terror attacks on the World Trade Center, in addition to their heart-wrenching toll on human life and wide-ranging economic impacts, also constituted an unprecedented environmental assault for Lower Manhattan. At least 10,000 New Yorkers have suffered short-term health ailments from Trade Center generated air contaminants.
- There is good news to report concerning the quality of outdoor air in Lower Manhattan today. In general, outdoor air quality in Lower Manhattan is now approaching, or is similar to, levels in this area prior to September 11th.
- Other than isolated outdoor hotspots, the most worrisome air pollution problem now facing Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks involves indoor pollution threats in some residences and offices that received high doses of debris and dust and whose buildings were not properly cleaned. The extent of the remaining indoor pollution is one that is manageable in scope.
- Despite much that is praiseworthy, the overall government response to the environmental health challenges presented by September 11th fell short in several key areas. Among the key problems were gaps in coordination and leadership, difficulties in communicating environmental information to the public, occupational safety shortcomings at Ground Zero, and problems assisting Lower Manhattan residents on environmental safety and clean-up. Of the more than nine city, state and federal agencies involved in aspects of the environmental health response to the September 11th attacks, the performance of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were particularly disappointing.
Summary or Recommendations
- The Occupation Safety and Health Administration, along with appropriate state and city agencies should immediately undertake stringent enforcement of workplace safety standards for workers at Ground Zero and workers involved in clean-up of dust- or debris-filled offices or residences in the vicinity of the Trade Center site.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and other relevant agencies should immediately create a joint task force to address remaining indoor air problems in Lower Manhattan residences and office buildings.
- Federal, state and city agencies should act without delay to require the use of low sulfur fuel for diesel trucks and equipment operating in connection with Trade Center recovery, clean-up and rebuilding operations.
- The federal government should provide additional funding to assist in the completion of recently initiated health studies of the environmental impacts of the September 11th attacks on workers and residents of Lower Manhattan.
- The federal government should provide funding to the Centers for Disease Controls to assist in the establishment of a comprehensive health registry for workers, school children and residents in the Ground Zero vicinity who may have been impacted by the attacks on the World Trade Center.
- New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should officially designate the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to lead and coordinate the response of various government agencies to future environmental emergencies in New York City.
- Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York City Council should enact legislation creating a New York City Committee of Environmental Science and Health Advisors to work, in conjunction with the Board of Health, assisting city officials in evaluating information and communicating it to the public during future environmental health emergencies.
- Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Council should commission an independent assessment of the response of government agencies to the environmental health challenges presented by the September 11th attacks.
- The Congress should enact S.1621 to establish a permanent health monitoring system at disaster sites.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should initiate a review of existing national ambient air quality standards with the aim of revising particulate matter standards to account for high-intensity, short-term pollution bursts and of reviewing whether new standards for other pollutants discharged on September 11th are warranted.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection should review New York City's entire air quality monitoring network with the aim of adding stationary and mobile monitors to the existing system, so as to provide comprehensive monitoring information in future environmental emergencies.
- The U.S. Congress, the New York State Legislature and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should develop and advance legislative proposals to minimize the amount of toxic substances that are used in office products and consumer goods
i. Eric Lipton, "A New Count of the Dead, But Little Sense of Relief," New York Times, December 2, 2001.
ii. "The Impact of the September 11 WTC Attack on NYC's Economy and City Revenues," Office of the Comptroller, the City of New York, October 4, 2001, p. iii.
iii. In many cases, the consultants with whom we spoke were unable to release such data to us, but were willing to discuss their overall findings.
last revised 2/15/2002
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