Air Pollution Monitoring In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

EPA Air Quality Monitor at Floyd Bennett Field (via FEMA)

Why did it take six and a half weeks for environmental officials to get air pollution monitors set up in the New York City neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy?

On October 29, Hurricane Sandy walloped the New York (and New Jersey) coastlines with fierce winds and an unprecedented storm surge, sending another signal to the region's polulace that our climate is definitely changing.

In the days and weeks that followed, many residents of the Rockaway Peninsula and the South Shore of Staten Island -- areas that were especially battered by Sandy -- complained of coughing and respiratory problems.

This is not surprising.  In the aftermath of the hurricane, massive amounts of sand and construction debris became airborne. Increased pollutants from motor vehicles and demolition equipment were discharged.  Unknown quantities of asbestos were released.  And considerable amounts of mold degraded indoor air quality in many homes in the affected neighborhoods.

But it took until early December before the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finally moved in supplemental air pollution monitors to measure particulate matter in the Rockaways, Mill Basin, Gerritsen Beach, Staten Island's South Shore and the Southern tip of Lower Manhattan.

In so doing, the Department noted that routine air pollution monitors throughout the region were showing "no overall significant increase" in outdoor pollution.

But DEC also acknowledged that "air pollution in hurricane recovery areas. . . will increase at times as cleanup and rebuilding continue."  And the agency conceded: "Data from existing large-area monitors does not necessarily reflect pollutant concentrations close to sources of pollution, like dust from Hurricane Sandy cleanup activities.  Supplemental monitors are needed for such measurements."  

The first data from these special pollution monitors show that quantities of particulate matter in the air of these hard-hit neighborhoods, while higher than the regional average, was still within levels that met National Ambient Air Quality Standards designed to protect public health; at least those were the readings seven weeks after the hurricane struck.

The highest readings, from December 10th through December 27th, were recorded at the special lower Manhattan monitoring site (Water Street, between John and Fletcher Streets).   But here, too, the particulate matter levels only exceeded the 24-hour federal health standard on a single day.  (DEC concluded that these higher readings were probably a result of temporary power generators and boilers hooked up to buildings and other activities related to hurricane repairs.)

In short, the DEC's special monitoring data taken seven weeks or more after the hurricane struck showed that particulate matter levels in the most impacted neighborhoods, while at times higher than normal, were virtually always in compliance with federal health standards.

Still, the failure to get such monitors in place earlier -- in the days immediately following the hurricane, when polluton levels might well have been greater -- is disturbing.


MISSING MONITORS: Air pollution monitoring equipment was finally installed in hardest hit NYC neighborhoods -- but not until almost seven weeks after Hurricane Sandy first struck.


This delay brings to mind the shortcomings regarding air quality monitoring and communications in the weeks following the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Of course, nobody believes that air pollution generated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was anything near as serious as was the contamination in Lower Manhattan following September 11th.  The 9/11 attack, in addition of course to the still unbearable loss of life, resulted in huge volumes of toxic consituents that were launched into the air when the Trade Center caught fire and quickly collpased; the problem was exacerbated, especially for first responders, by the below-ground fires that simmered for several months thereafter.  In contrast, as noted above, the air contaminants from Hurricane Sandy were largely dust and debris and contained fewer toxins.

But a big problem follwing September 11th was governments' shortcomings in pollution monitoring and failures to communicate risks to the public.

And it is a matter of continuning concern that government agencies still seem not to have fully learned the lessons from 9/11 about the need to undertake prompt air monitoring and disclose the results following disasters that raise the possibility of environmental health risks.

We can speculate that, following Hurricane Sandy, government agencies might have initially decided not to send in special air pollution monitors because they concluded that there was no serious air quality threat.  But perhaps they were wrong, and in any event, pollution monitoring early on would have been very helpful in allaying public concern.  

Or maybe officials concluded that monitoring might in fact show a short-term exceedance of national health standards and they were concerned that local residents might not be able to put this information in perspective.   But such a course of action would repeat a key mistake of September 11th -- believing that New Yorkers are not sophisticated enough to understand a scientifically accurate and nuanced message about health risks. 

Several months after the September 11th attack, NRDC recommended that federal, state and city environmental officials get together and establish an enhanced capacity for rapid response air and water pollution monitoring, to be deployed in the immediate aftermath of disasters.  

We had thought that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had in fact set up such mobile monitoring capacity.  But, for whatever reason, it seems not to have been utilized in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

We are glad that New York State DEC, with EPA's assistance, finally did undertake air quality monitoring in the communities most directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  And we are pleased that recorded pollution levels have not shown a major cause for concern (at least when the data were collected).

But we wonder why it took so long to get these monitors into position, especially when local residents were reporting numerous instances of coughing and respiratory irritation weeks before.

We again call upon city, state and federal environmental officials to inform New Yorkers as to whether they have the capacity to do emergency air and water (and radioactive) monitoring at the ready. The public needs to know that our environmental and health agencies are able to dispatch such equipment, with trained staffs, within 24 hours of a disaster.

And if such capacity does not now exist throughout the tri-state region, it would seem prudent to use a portion of the federal funds that are hopefully forthcoming to establish such an emergency mobile environmental monitoring network without further delay -- so that we are all fully prepared for the next time disaster strikes.

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