Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

No data for post-9/11 air safety: Interview with EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley
By Lisa Myers, NBC NEWS, September 3, 2003

The following is the transcript of NBC News’ Lisa Myers’ interview with EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley about Tinsley’s report charging that the EPA did not give full information to the public about the safety of breathing the air around the World Trade Center site in New York City after Sept. 11, 2001.

Nikki Tinsley, EPA inspector general: I am a career inspector general. I started my career with the government over 30 years ago. I’ve been with the EPA since 1990. I became the acting inspector general in 1997 after my predecessor retired.

Lisa Myers: In your report, you did say that the Environmental Protection Agency did some things well after Sept. 11th. What would you give them good marks on?

Tinsley: The efforts of EPA staff in responding to the World Trade Center collapse were nothing short of extraordinary. And our report is meant in no way to detract from EPA’s accomplishments.

Myers: How well did the EPA do in leveling with the people of New York about the safety of the air?

Tinsley: Our concern in our report, which is that EPA did not have all the information it needed to make broad statements about the safety of the air and water. But the most glaring issue we’ve identified was a September 18th press release where EPA said that the air was generally safe and the water was safe. Early on, it was difficult for EPA to even have access to the World Trade Center site to do the kind of monitoring that it would want to do in order to make environmental assessments.

Myers: Was it misleading to the people of New York?

Tinsley: I’m not sure we’ll ever know whether or not it was misleading because even to date, the environmental information is not available for EPA to make statements about the safety of the air right after the collapse.

Myers: But based on what EPA knew at the time that release was put out, what should it have said?

Tinsley: It should have had cautionary statements in the press release, we believe. And it just should have explained to the public that it didn’t have all the information to have a true assessment. And that would be consistent with policy that the EPA actually has right now for its Superfund program.

Myers: You’re saying there’s no way EPA had the data to assure the people of New York that their air was safe?
Tinsley: That’s what our work shows.

Myers: Was that press release saying that the air was safe to breathe misleading?

Tinsley: It surely wasn’t qualified to the extent that it should have been for some populations. Populations like the elderly or like young children.

Myers: Isn’t it true that at the insistence of the White House, the EPA dropped language that would have cautioned that air pollution could pose risks for young children?

Tinsley: Our work shows on two earlier press releases, September 13th and September 16th, that there was Council of Environmental Quality involvement. And deleting cautionary statements from the press releases and adding some assurances.

Myers: On the day that EPA assured New Yorkers that their air was safe to breathe, what tests were not in yet?

Tinsley: EPA did not have information about particulate matter. And excessive exposure to particulate matter, to high levels of particulate matter, can cause respiratory problems. Also, EPA did not have monitoring data on PCBs and dioxins. And there is no scientific baseline for those two pollutants to even know if they had had the monitoring data, whether or not there are health effects associated with it.

Myers: So was it misleading for EPA to tell New Yorkers their air was safe to breathe?

Tinsley: It was surely not telling all of the truth.

Myers: Let me talk to you about a September 16th release. In this release, I guess a statement was deleted from the draft which said, “The concern raised by these samples would be for the workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices in or near Wall Street on Monday September 17th.” Do you view that as a significant omission?

Tinsley: Yes. And we got feedback from some of the ... folks that we interviewed during our audit work that said that did affect their behavior.

Myers: So some workers told you they went back?

Tinsley: They went back because they were told that the air was safe. They didn’t always wear respiratory equipment, even though many agencies advised folks to do that.... I think it’s a good idea for the agency always to give as much information to the public as possible to help them make informed decisions.... EPA provided New Yorkers with information through a number of vehicles. Through television interviews, through radio interviews, through their press releases, on its Web site. We reviewed all of those different communication vehicles. And we found them, for the most part, to be accurate. We only found problems with these few press releases that you and I have talked about today.

Myers: But the press releases that were a problem, where they at a minimum misleading?

Tinsley: They surely did not provide complete information to the public.

Myers: Did they tell the truth?

Tinsley: We don’t know even today whether or not those press releases told the truth, because the information isn’t available to make some of those statements even today.

Myers: Who was calling the shots at the White House on this?

Tinsley: I don’t know the name of the person from the Council of Environmental Quality who was involved in the collaboration process. I do know that there were officials from both Occupational Safety and Health Administration and from the Council on Environmental Quality.

Myers: Do you have any idea why these press releases were made more optimistic and less cautionary?

Tinsley: EPA’s chief of staff at the time we did our work said that her opinion was that it was important to get workers back to work and to have a positive impact on Wall Street. And that was what influenced the collaborative process.

Myers: So eagerness to get workers back on Wall Street took precedence over giving complete environmental information?

Tinsley: That would be what I would infer from the information that we received from the EPA employees.

Myers: Now, Sen. Hillary Clinton has charged that the White House told the EPA not to tell the people of New York the truth. Is that how you see it?

Tinsley: That’s probably a broader statement than I would make. For example, we didn’t talk to anyone in the White House or in CEQ [Council of Environmental Quality ] about their involvement.

Myers: So you are not charging that the White House told the EPA to lie to the people of New York?

Tinsley: I’m saying that the Council of Environmental Quality influenced the warning in EPA’s press releases. But I cannot say anything beyond that.

Myers: Former [EPA] Administrator [Christie] Whitman has said, “There’s no way in hell — excuse my language — that I would ever, ever play games with this kind of information.” In your view, did she play games with information?

Tinsley: I didn’t think that agency managers even today believe that they played any games with information. And our report doesn’t intend to say that they played games. What our report says is that EPA didn’t fully inform the public. And we believe that that’s the EPA’s job to do just that. The public relies on EPA to give it the best possible environmental and human health information.

Myers: Was [the] White House ... changing the tone of EPA’s statements to the public?

Tinsley: The press releases were part of a collaborative process. The agency and all aspects of the federal government wanted to speak with one voice. I think that’s a good thing. I think that the federal government should speak with one voice. Our concern with the few press releases that we talk about in our report is that that one voice did not fully inform the public.

Myers: And the one voice was dictated, to some extent, by the White House?

Tinsley: That’s what our work shows.

Myers: You must have had lengthy discussions with the White House about your report?

Tinsley: We did not discuss our report with the White House. We wanted to interview the CEQ employee that was involved in the collaborative process. We were never able to get access to that person to interview that person. So the only information we have on CEQ’s involvement comes from EPA employees.

Myers: So the White House refused even to talk to you?

Tinsley: Council of Environmental Quality did not talk to us. And we were contacted by White House counsel that said that we weren’t going to have that interview.

Myers: Regardless of whether the EPA should have been more forthcoming in some of its press releases, do you have any evidence that the public was harmed by reassurances that air quality levels were safe?

Tinsley: No. We don’t have any evidence of that.

Myers: So you don’t have evidence at this point that the manipulation of press releases had any negative impact on public health?

Tinsley: We don’t have any data that shows that explicitly. And our work was not designed to do that. In fact, we worked closely with the deputy administrator to make sure when we designed our review that it addressed those issues that they thought were most important so that they could make better decisions in the future. And prepare better policy for dealing with any disaster that might happen in the future.

Myers: Is there any evidence that anyone’s health suffered because EPA did not fully inform the public?

Tinsley: There’s anecdotal evidence from others that we talk about in our report. But we can’t make a direct connection to people’s health of the disaster and EPA’s statements.

Myers: What reasons were you given for the changes in the press releases?

Tinsley: We were told that a desire to reopen Wall Street and national security concerns were the reasons for changing the press releases.

Myers: Were those adequate concerns, in your view?

Tinsley: It’s confusing to me. I don’t understand how that could justify withholding information from the public.

Myers: Did the EPA mislead the people of New York?

Tinsley: The EPA did not give the people of New York complete information. And EPA didn’t stand by its guns, if you will. It had put together press releases that were more informative than those that it ultimately released.

Myers: Was it misleading for EPA to tell the people of New York that their air was safe to breathe when they didn’t have all the tests in yet?

Tinsley: Yes. We think that people rely on EPA to give it accurate, complete information about environmental and human health aspects of its program.

Myers: What troubles you most about what you saw in this?

Tinsley: I was surprised, because EPA historically does give complete information. And it was surprising to me, in just these few instances. Because we looked at many of the EPA’s communications. Not just press releases. The information on the Web site was surely adequate. It gave detailed information. EPA gave the public access to monitoring data as it got it. And it was surprising to see that EPA did not issue complete press releases. Press releases with complete information about its thoughts on what the public should do and about the information it had.

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