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Interim Report Criticizes Assurances by EPA on World Trade Center Air Quality
By John Herzfeld, BNA Daily Environment Report, March 20, 2003

NEW YORK--The Environmental Protection Agency did not have sufficient data to declare that the air in lower Manhattan was "safe to breathe" in the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center, according to the interim findings of an investigation by the agency's Office of the Inspector General. The status report by an team looking into EPA's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, disaster appeared to underscore criticisms leveled against the agency for more than a year by environmental and public health groups.

The status report, which is dated Jan. 27 and was made available by EPA critics including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), also contains new information suggesting that the White House Council on Environmental Quality "heavily influenced" EPA public statements on the air quality around the World Trade Center site. Selected electronic mail messages analyzed by the OIG team "indicated that CEQ dictated the content of early press releases," with EPA following all White House directions to add or delete material, the report said.

The report also found that EPA policies and procedures for approval of press releases "are stale," have not been revised since the early 1980s, and "appear not to be known or followed" by current agency press staff in Washington or New York. The question of who in the agency had final authority over the World Trade Center air quality press releases remains in dispute, the report indicated.

Asbestos Standard
In questioning the agency's assurances on the safety of the air around the site, the status report charged that EPA had borrowed an asbestos standard from school and demolition settings that had not been intended for general use as a health standard. It further accused the agency of failing to acknowledge that "health standards do not exist" for the cumulative impact of exposure to several pollutants at once and that little was known of their synergistic effects. Also, it complained, "EPA's pronouncement did not address short-term impacts."

The agency did not have any data on 10 of 14 "pollutants of concern" identified by scientists as possibly being part of public exposure to the dust cloud, the report said. Furthermore, the report charged, EPA based its assurances on a risk standard of 1-in-10, 000, or one cancer case expected per 10,000 exposed people, for only a limited number of carciniogenic pollutants. That conflicted with the agency's "traditional reliance" on a 1-in- 1,000,000 acceptable-risk standard for air toxics, and a 1-in-100,000 level to trigger action by industry to abate health risks, the report said. A spokeswoman for EPA could not be reached for comment on the report.

National Contingency Program
On another point of contention, the report said EPA had "considered implementing" the National Contingency Program, a disaster response protocol for hazardous substances control, but had chosen against that step. Critics maintained that the pollution levels at the site should have triggered the program, which would have given EPA primacy over other government agencies and a more forceful role in managing such issues as indoor air contamination.

In preliminary recommendations, the report said EPA must improve risk communication to the public, improve risk characterization tools and processes, and develop scenarios in anticipation of emergency scenarios.

Commenting on the report, Nadler said, "The EPA never had a right to say the area was safe, because the agency never had any evidence to back it up." He reiterated his past contentions that the agency was guilty of "malfeasance" in how it has handled the air quality issues (28 DEN A-12, 2/11/03 ). Nadler added, "I will be interested to see what the final report says. But for now, this seems to be more confirmation that the EPA has bungled the whole situation from the get go." He called for the agency to "properly test" indoor spaces within range of the trade center dust cloud, using the most stringent standards and remediating any sites found with elevated levels of contaminants.

Concerns Previously Raised
Most of the report's content, except for the account of CEQ influence over the EPA press releases, has been aired previously by critics of the agency's conduct in the disaster and cleanup, said Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a union and public health group. "But what's significant is that it is coming from within a government regulatory agency," he told BNA March 19. "NYCOSH and other groups have been raising questions and objections for the last year and a half, like a voice in the wilderness, without much official response from EPA," he said. "Now we have a report leaked from the OIG that seems to reflect our concerns."

Newman said NYCOSH hopes the OIG investigation will foster "increased government and media scrutiny to the public health issues in lower Manhattan" and a revisiting of the issue of environmental sampling.

The group is seeking "more intensive and extensive indoor sampling for a wider range of contaminants," he said, leading to additional cleanup efforts for residential spaces and an "overdue" initiation of remediation measures for commercial spaces. In the long run, Newman added, the goal should be to learn from the lessons of dealing with the World Trade Center attack to prepare for the risk of any future attacks. "The report is devastating," he said. "We hope that what will come out of this is that EPA will follow the NCP in any future incidents of this magnitude, so that the agency will do the job it's supposed to do and that its staff probably would like to do."


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