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

Lessons from 9/11

Air Date: Week of

New York resident Kimberly Flynn has some advice for the citizens of New Orleans: take the EPA's word with a grain of salt. Flynn lived through the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and afterwards confronted the EPA multiple times about the contaminated dust left behind in many residential apartments. She talks with host Steve Curwood about lessons the EPA should learn from 9/11.


CURWOOD: One of the critics is Kimberly Flynn, a 9/11 survivor , and co-coordinator of the 9/11 Environmental Action Group in Lower Manhattan. She’s also a native of New Orleans and she joins me now from New York City.


FLYNN: Hello, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you, you've had many meetings with the EPA about their disaster response after 9/11. What was the quality of your overall experience with them?

FLYNN: Well, it was an experience of struggle. My group and the community groups and labor groups that went into these meetings at EPA Region 2 in the summer of 2002, brought to EPA many recommendations for important improvements to EPA's testing and cleanup protocols. EPA, unfortunately, ignored our recommendations, and then, in 2003, the EPA's Inspector General released its report on EPA's environmental response, and lo and behold, every recommendation that we had made was in the IG report Chapter 6 on the indoor cleanup. We were right, the EPA was wrong.

CURWOOD: Now, you were trying to make your neighborhoods habitable again. What was the problem with the EPA? They weren't testing the right things? They weren't making the right recommendations? What did you want them to do?

FLYNN: Well, what we wanted them to do was something called “representative testing.” We wanted them to do testing in buildings successive perimeters around Ground Zero. So you test around Ground Zero, and then you move out to the next circle and you test inside buildings there, and you test and look for the point at which contaminants, like lead and asbestos and mercury and other things in the World Trade Center dust, drop off significantly. EPA never conducted representative testing.

We also wanted EPA to offer a sound, comprehensive cleanup of all residences and workplaces that were affected by the disaster. EPA, instead, offered a voluntary cleanup for apartments only, it did very little outreach, and the cleanup was very substandard. In the end, fewer than 18 percent of, I think, 30,000 apartments in Lower Manhattan were even touched by the EPA.

CURWOOD: So now, as you look at what's going on in New Orleans as far as the EPA's response to the hurricane, how do you feel about how it's doing its job?

FLYNN: Troubled. We’re actually very worried that we’re watching another cover up shape up.

CURWOOD: Cover up? That’s strong words.

FLYNN: Yeah, I know it is but, really, when we look at EPA's testing design for floodwater in New Orleans, EPA started out with six sites where they were doing water sampling. Now it's expanded to 13 sites. But New Orleans is 180 square miles of land and 80 percent of that was underwater. So this raises the question of whether EPA is using adequate sampling methodologies, or whether in fact EPA is looking to find as little as possible so that it has to conduct as little cleanup as possible.

CURWOOD: You have family in New Orleans, I understand it, still. Where were they when the hurricane struck?

FLYNN: My family was in an apartment building in the near vicinity of the now-notorious 17th Street Canal levee break.

CURWOOD: How did they do?

FLYNN: They did fine. The winds were extremely scary, and they were actually, you know, they were very concerned when the floodwaters started to rise late Monday. But, eventually, they were rescued by first responders, and they are now safe and sound. We’re very lucky.

CURWOOD: What's your advice to them about going back to the city?

FLYNN: Well, my advice to them right now is not to go back to the city. And you know, New Orleanians love the city and New Orleanians want to come back, but right now, the city is far too contaminated.

CURWOOD: In your view, the EPA didn't do a very good job in communicating with the public after 9/11 in New York. What should they do now in New Orleans?

FLYNN: Well, EPA actually has even a legal obligation to do everything in its power to engage the affected communities. And we know that New Orleans is a diaspora right now and people are displaced, but they are clustered in nearby cities like Baton Rouge and Houston. So if EPA were to take seriously that it has to partner with the community, it would hold a series of town halls in these cities that should be broadcast on TV and the Internet. The public needs to get a chance to question the EPA and what we've learned from experience is that that's the fastest way to get to the bottom of any situation that involves toxics.

CURWOOD: Kimberly Flynn is co-coordinator of the 9/11 Environmental Action Group in Lower Manhattan. She's also a native of New Orleans. Thanks for your information, Kim.

FLYNN: Thank you very much.



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