By Jonathan Bennett
“When air monitors have been outlawed, only outlaws will have air monitors!”
The slogan, which has become the unofficial rallying cry of an ad hoc coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, elected officials and community activists, was environmental activist Bob Gulack’s reaction when he heard a report about the New York City Police Department’s plan to require a permit for any independent environmental sampling used in the city.
A long list of organizations and individual activists all oppose the proposed law, known as Intro 650, which was unveiled by NYPD brass at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee Jan. 8 meeting.
The proposed legislation would make it a misdemeanor for anyone in New York City to own, or use, any device that measures chemical, biological or radiological contamination. Banned devices could include smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors, Geiger counters, and any device that collects and analyzes air or water samples, for contamination without first obtaining a permit from NYPD.
It was the independently collected air samples in Lower Manhattan after 9/11 that debunked the claim by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the air was safe to breathe.
Among those opposed to Intro 650 is U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose congressional district includes the site of the World Trade Center. Testifying to the City Council, Nadler called the bill “a great potential to threaten the important contributions made by academic research institutions, unions, and environmental and community-based organizations that conduct independent chemical, biological and radiological environmental sampling.” Nadler is a leading proponent of federal legislation to provide healthcare to people now sick due to exposure of 9/11-related contamination.
The overriding question is why would NYPD want to control the use of air monitors and other environmental sampling equipment?
“Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms and unnecessary public concern by making sure that we know where these detectors are located and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability,” said Richard Falkenrath, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counter-Terrorism in his testimony for the bill.
The bill’s opponents call this justification for the bill a smokescreen. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer noted that he had never heard of a false alarm caused by private environmental monitoring. “This is a fake emergency that doesn’t exist,” he said. “If it’s not a problem, let’s not try to create one.”
“As introduced, Intro 650 has the potential to adversely impact, delay or even prevent unions, environmental activists and others from doing the kind of work that is now done under the protection of laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the National Labor Relations Act,” said Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist with the non-profit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Also according to the police department’s testimony, the driving force behind the bill is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The police testified that the federal government asked NYPD to lobby for the bill, with the intention of using the proposed New York City law as a model to be adopted by other cities and states. In response to the strong opposition, the city prepared a revised version of the bill, which was made public Jan. 25. The revised bill exempts any detector that, “presents no significant possibility of triggering an alert of a possible biological, chemical or radiological weapons attack” from its requirements.
Despite the exemption for smoke detectors, opposition to the bill remains solid because it would require permits for almost all sampling equipment used by environmental and labor organizations to test for environmental degradation or dangerous working environments.
The bill has no provision for an appeal if the NYPD refuses to issue a permit, except to allow the applicant to submit an amended application.
Jonathan Bennett is a former Public Affairs Director with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH).