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Pataki pushed EPA

NY Daily News / GREG B. SMITH | September 24 2006

Gov. Pataki privately pressured regulators enforcing safe demolition of the toxic former Deutsche Bank tower to make sure the Ground Zero building comes down as soon as possible, the Daily News has learned.

Pataki chief of staff John Cahill and two other top aides had a closed-door sitdown in Washington last Monday with the No.2 official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a regional EPA spokeswoman confirmed.

Pataki's aides requested the meeting to let EPA know "about the need for the project to move forward quickly," according to EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears.

By going to the top, Pataki went over the heads of the local EPA inspectors, who have repeatedly questioned the safety of the state's proposed methods for taking down the ruined

40-story building.

Asked whether Pataki officials had requested the EPA to lower standards as it oversees demolition of 130 Liberty St., Mears said, "No comment."

The private meeting highlights the conflict between Pataki's desire to bring down what he calls "a blight on downtown" and neighborhood fears that dust from the fallen twin towers will be released during demolition.

Pataki's pressure on the EPA comes as the agency has found itself in a crossfire for not doing enough to protect World Trade Center rescue workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Critics of the state's handling of the tower at 130 Liberty St. question why Pataki's aides bypassed local regulators in their push for an accelerated schedule.

"These kind of back-room meetings out of the public eye are not reassuring," said Dave Newman of the New York Commission on Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit group pressing for a safe demolition.

"The large question is quite apparent," he said. "It seems to me it's unlikely they went down there for any other reason than to get the EPA to back off."

EPA officials and a Pataki spokeswoman refused to discuss the meeting. Mears did confirm that EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock met in Peacock's Washington office with Cahill, the governor's point man on Ground Zero rebuilding; Charles Fox, Pataki's deputy secretary on environmental issues, and Charles Maikish, head of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center.

Peacock "heard them out and reiterated the need to make sure this is done right," Mears said. "We reminded them to do the project in a way that's protective to human health."

Mears said the EPA agreed the agency "would get comments back to them as expeditiously as possible." By Thursday, the EPA had approved the state's demolition plan - a plan that had been bogged down in negotiations with the EPA's local office for months.

Gov's office mum

Pataki spokeswoman Joanna Rose declined to reveal what the governor's aides requested of the EPA, calling the high-level meeting - the only one of its kind since the state took ownership of the tower in August 2004 - "part of the ongoing dialogue."

"This project is of critical importance to all of downtown," she said. "It is a blight on downtown, and we want to make sure we move forward quickly, but in the most environmentally sensitive manner possible."

The 40-story tower was ruined during the Sept. 11 attacks when the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed, ripping a huge gash in the Deutsche facade and dumping poisonous dust and debris inside.

The state bought the building from Deutsche Bank, which now has offices on Wall St. and in midtown, and has spent two years trying to tear it down.

Last week, for the first time, the state formally acknowledged the deconstruction effort was behind schedule by several months.

That's because of the complex nature of the demolition, which requires taking down a high-rise tower clogged with toxic dust.

To protect the neighborhood and workers, the EPA's New York office has strictly monitored the state's demolition effort, frequently requesting changes to the state's submitted plans, as The News has documented in a series of stories.

Originally set to be finished by spring 2007, officials now admit the demolition won't be done until next September.

That puts it in the way of other projects at Ground Zero, starting with the extension of the so-called bathtub wall that protects the site from the Hudson River.

The wall can't be moved until the tower is gone, according to the Port Authority. At the same time, the PA must wait for the former bank building demolition before it can begin construction of an underground vehicle security center.

Nevertheless, Claire Stapleton of the LMCCC, the state agency that now supervises the 130 Liberty St. demolition, insisted the delays won't affect other projects.

"Our first priority remains protecting the community," she wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "The minor adjustments in the schedule at this point are expected to have no detrimental consequences on the schedules of any of the other projects at the site. We expect the Deutsche Bank deconstruction to be completed by September 2007."

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