Lessons Learned From The World Trade Center Event

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 - 01:00

On the morning of September 11, 2001 two hijacked commercial jetliners roared out of the sky and were deliberately flown into towers one and two of the World Trade Center.

The total destruction of the World Trade Center complex from the initial collapse of towers one and two to the subsequent fires which completed the devastation of the complex produced an environmental disaster unparalleled to any experienced in modern times in an urban environment in the United States. The destruction of the World Trade Center produced an initial dust cloud which covered the southern portion of Manhattan Island. In addition, the fire which followed the collapse of the towers burned for months and was the longest lasting commercial building fire in U.S. history. In total, ten major buildings experienced partial or total collapse and approximately thirty million square feet of office space were evacuated.

In the days immediately following September 11, 2001, federal, state and city agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency, were called upon to initiate air monitoring activities to better understand the ongoing impact from this event. These efforts resulted in a report dated October 2002.1 Some of the relevant findings of that report were:

  • The monitoring data indicated that air concentrations of World Trade Center hazardous substances from the event did not decrease to background levels that were characteristic of pre-WTC event levels in the New York City metropolitan area until around January or February of 2002.

  • Particulate matter (PM), metals (lead, chromium and nickel compounds), PCBs, dioxin-like compounds, asbestos, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were identified as chemicals of concern for risk assessment purposes based on monitoring data collected during the WTC event. These substances are included because monitoring indicated that they correlated with the disaster site in both time and space, and because they pose a potential concern for health effects.

As the director of litigation in the United States and later consultant for Deutsche Bank AG, an owner/occupier of over one million square feet of office space in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, I was tasked with assisting the bank in assessing the impact of contamination from the event on its building structures in that location.

My participation in this process enabled me to observe not only the bank's but other parties' reactions to the World Trade Center event. As with all tragedies of this magnitude, there were important lessons learned that should and must be shared with others so that we are all better prepared for disaster events (fires, floods, explosions) which can impact high rise office buildings, even if not the result of an event of the scope and magnitude of the World Trade Center event.

1. Can a World Trade Center type event happen to your company? If your company is the owner or tenant of a high rise office building the answer is emphatically yes. Statistically throughout the world we are increasingly living and working in urban and, thus, high rise environments.

Losses from weather related and man made events are increasing

Terrorists have targeted private enterprises. The chart below demonstrates that losses resulting from terrorist type events are predominantly incurred by non-governmental entities.

All of this serves to demonstrate that it is necessary and appropriate for entities with high rise properties to properly plan for a catastrophic event.

2. Can what happened at the World Trade Center serve as lessons for high rise building owners and tenants?

For years business enterprises and governments have planned for disruptions caused by catastrophic events by having, for example, back-up data centers and communication systems and even offsite emergency office space. However, the World Trade Center event brought into stark focus the fact that high rise building fires, floods, and explosions create significant, potentially hazardous, environmental conditions which need to be properly evaluated as part of the assessment of the cost and feasibility of remediating a damaged building.

The USEPA concluded that the airborne dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers blanketed lower Manhattan with a complex mixture of building debris and combustion by-products, including among other things, asbestos, lead, glass fibers and concrete dust. Emissions from fires that burned until declared extinguished on December 19, 2001 produced particulate matter, various metals, polychlorinated biphenyl's (PCB's), volatile organic compounds (VOC's), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxin. According to the USEPA, there did not exist on September 11, 2001 health-based benchmarks for short-term and acute exposures for pollutants of concern resulting from the World Trade Center towers collapse. Further, health-based benchmarks did not exist for assessing the risk to human health from exposure to the combination of air pollutants emitted during this catastrophe.

High rise building fires, explosions and floods by their nature are infrequent (but as indicated herein are becoming more frequent), of high severity, and cause environmental consequences that are difficult to assess because of the lack of:

  • real-time information,

  • decision-making tools,

  • guidance from the governmental or the scientific community on human health risks, background contamination levels and remediation standards.

It is of critical importance for business entities and governments to properly prepare for these events as part of normal emergency planning.

The conclusion of a review conducted by experts of a limited number of fires in high rise office buildings over the past thirty years was that the environmental damage to a high rise building from a fire or explosion can exceed the actual physical damage. Among the examples of this phenomenon was a 1981 fire in a New York State office building (44 Hawley Street, Binghamton, New York). While the actual physical damage consisted of a basement fire involving a transformer, the building was contaminated with PCBs. Rather than demolishing the building, which cost about $17 million to construct, a decision was made to clean the building. The cleaning of the building cost approximately $50 million and took almost 13 years to complete. A similar result occurred in a fire on the 19th floor in a file room of the Delaware Trust building in Wilmington, Delaware and a fire on the 19th floor of 1 Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

With respect to the Deutsche Bank building located at 130 Liberty Street, New York, New York, the building sustained significant physical damage, but the environmental contamination of the building by the World Trade Center event caused experts retained by the bank to conclude that it should be demolished.

Corporate management faced with a decision whether to remediate or demolish a building impacted by a catastrophe has to make difficult and often complex decisions. Among the issues management will have to deal with are:

  • Can the building be made "safe" from a human health point of view for reoccupancy? How does management determine what is safe in the absence of guidance from government and science?

  • What are appropriate clearance standards for any cleanup project?

  • How much will it cost to make the building "safe" and does the company have appropriate insurance coverage to pay for the cleanup?

  • How long will it take to clean the building?

  • When cleaned will the value of the building be permanently impaired resulting in a possible adjustment in its value on the company's books?

  • What are the risks of future liabilities of the building's owner or manager to building occupants, remediation workers who clean the building and the community around the building and for the disposal of waste created by the catastrophe?

These are not questions which management is normally equipped to make because it requires:

  • an understanding of environmental contamination and its impact on human health;

  • contamination sample collection and analysis;

  • a team of architects, engineers, construction managers, remediation experts and others to evaluate if the building can be successfully cleaned for a reasonable price and in a reasonable time-frame;

  • bright-line standards to assess health risks from environmental contamination in an office building context which do not exist; and

  • information on the background (pre-existing) environmental conditions in the building or the local area where the building is located (was the building already contaminated before the event?)

In order for management to take prompt and cost effective action in these situations, it should do the following before any catastrophe:

Develop and document a systematic emergency response program to enable management to assess the environmental and physical condition of the building. This plan should be part of your business interruption plan and should provide for the following:

(a) offsite storage of as-built drawings of the building and all improvements thereto;

(b) offsite storage of an up-to-date inventory of tenant improvements, furniture, equipment and data processing and communication equipment;

(c) collection and storage of current baseline environmental test data regarding the building;

(d) retaining the services on a standby basis of an environmental consulting firm with environmental emergency response capabilities and experience;

(e) reviewing insurance coverages on an annual basis to ensure you have adequate coverage;

(f) activating on a test basis of the environmental response team; and

(g) assessing the vulnerability of the building to man made and weather related catastrophes.

1 NCEA, Office of Research and Development, U.S. EPA, October 2002.

Frank E. Lawatsch, Jr. is currently Of Counsel to Pitney Hardin LLP and is President and Chief Executive Officer of Expert Alliance, LLC, a firm of consulting scientists. He has served as general counsel to three large publicly owned corporations and as a Managing Director and Senior Counsel for Deutsche Bank AG.

Please email the author at flawatsch@daypitney.com with questions about this article.