Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
False assurances put
public at risk, Watchdog: EPA more concerned about commerce than people's health
By Sheila R. Cherry,
WorldNetDaily.com, New World Communications, Inc., October 7, 2003
Responding to the horror and devastation in Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11, 2001, were a
myriad of city, state and federal agencies struggling with the unprecedented challenge
while both protecting and reassuring the public. According to a recent report by the lead
agency's inspector general, information necessary to protect the public came up short
because of overemphasis on the need to prevent panic and reassure the business and trade
giants still officed nearby as well as the essential workers of the city's great financial
markets who live or pass through the neighborhood.
That lead agency was the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, assigned the task of
overseeing the monitoring, collection and storage of data on environmental hazards
resulting from the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers. Now the EPA is caught
in a political firestorm. Congress and locals are furious that agency officials, who might
readily have been forgiven for uncertainty at the time, refused to admit even temporarily
that they didn't know what the environmental dangers were.
Instead, then-administrator of the EPA Christie Todd Whitman issued press releases,
granted interviews and gave press conferences to issue blanket assurances to New Yorkers
seeking to know what precautions they should take to protect their health and that of
"Sampling of ambient air quality found either no asbestos or very low levels of
asbestos," Whitman proclaimed in a press release on Sept. 13, 2001. For weeks agency
announcements reiterated that air and dust samples monitored in Lower Manhattan did not
show cause for public concern. So residents and responders alike combed through the
poisonous dust and debris in and around ground zero, all but ignoring protective breathing
As Insight reported in May 2002, Whitman forced out the then-ombudsman for the EPA, Robert
Martin, who launched a probe into Whitman's actions for alleged conflict of interest in
declaring Lower Manhattan safe a declaration that may have benefited her husband's
investments in the area.
The EPA's Office of Inspector General, or OIG, took the agency to task in its recent
report, EPA's Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes and Areas
for Improvement. The OIG found that the EPA "did not have sufficient data and
analyses" to reassure the public that the air was safe to breathe without protection.
Indeed, documents included in the report showed, the EPA had no basis for making
unqualified claims about the safety of the air quality in Lower Manhattan.
In a memo responding to a draft of the OIG report, acting EPA Administrator Marianne
Horinko admitted outright: "An immediate and continuing problem in measuring and
communicating environmental risk associated with the WTC dust/debris cloud was the fact
that for many of the contaminants of concern, there were no health-based standards."
Even then, critics note, she attempted to duck responsibility by saying: "The need
for such standards could not have ever been reasonably anticipated. Even for asbestos, the
contaminant of greatest concern, there was no applicable standard covering the situation
in Lower Manhattan."
But a December 2002 report from the inspector general of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, or FEMA, says, "EPA was aware, based on its work in the aftermath of the 1993
WTC terrorist bombing, that the WTC towers contained asbestos material. Neither FEMA nor
New York City officials, however, initially requested that EPA test or clean inside
buildings because neither EPA nor the New York City Department of Environmental Protection
could identify any specific health or safety threat.
EPA nevertheless advised rescue workers early after the terrorist attack on the WTC that
materials from the collapsed buildings contained irritants [sic] and advised residents and
building owners to use professional asbestos-abatement contractors to clean significantly
affected spaces." By which they apparently meant the whole of Lower Manhattan.
The EPA, the OIG report showed, opted for concern about commerce rather than people. So
did the New York City Department of Health, or NYCDOH, which advised in information
releases: "Based on the asbestos test results thus far, there are no significant
health risks to occupants in the affected area or to the general public."
New York City, which took the lead on residential cleanup at the discretion of the EPA,
used a criteria-based, mathematical formula for estimating the amount of airborne
asbestos. Since there were no health-based testing standards, the OIG acknowledged the
need for improvising. But city and EPA officials issued affirmative health assurances
based on those formulaic calculations, says the report, "when environmental
professionals clearly acknowledge that this standard is not protective of health."
One NYCDOH advisory declared, "Based on the asbestos air-test results so far, the
risk for disease from asbestos exposure in the community near the WTC is very low.
Asbestos exposure does not cause immediate symptoms and short-term exposure cannot be
detected by routine medical tests, such as physical exams, blood work or chest X-rays. It
takes 15 to 20 years to see any symptoms of disease-related asbestos exposure, but experts
believe that the levels of exposure to asbestos are low enough that the likelihood of
developing disease from the limited, short-term exposures associated with the WTC incident
is small." The experts were not named.
An observer at the WTC site recalls, "The firefighters and police on the scene said
at the time that the EPA officials gave them dust masks when there weren't enough
respirators to go around. And those people who had respirators didn't wear them because
EPA said the air was safe." A year later David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer
of the New York City Fire Department, told a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
or CDC, press conference that 600 firefighters and paramedics already were experiencing a
health effect called "World Trade Center cough."
According to the CDC's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Website,
"Prezant described World Trade Center cough as persistent coughing, wheezing, sinus
irritation and shortness of breath. The condition is exacerbated, he said, by
gastrointestinal reflux heartburn a condition caused by stomach acid backing
into the esophagus. Heartburn occurred, Prezant said, because rescuers not only inhaled
debris through their noses, but also gulped it down their throats and into their stomachs,
a result of not properly wearing respiratory gear." Unlike the EPA, Prezant declined
to try to predict the long-term prognosis.
The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, with the support of the CDC,
established a medical-screening program in July 2002 for workers and volunteers at the WTC
site and the Staten Island landfill. According to a preliminary report on 250 of the first
500 patients examined, there was mounting evidence of a high prevalence of respiratory
illnesses among New York City firefighters and ironworkers who were at ground zero. As a
result of the Mount Sinai report it also became clear that "there were numerous other
groups who were at or near the site during and after the WTC disaster who were also
suffering from a variety of WTC-related health problems." A Mount Sinai spokeswoman
says the CDC will release a final report in October.
"As I have stated since March of 2002, it is clear to me and to the inspector general
that the EPA was required to clean up all indoor spaces under PDD 62," says Rep.
Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a longtime EPA critic, in a press release. He was referring to
Presidential Decision Directive 62, which made the EPA the lead emergency responder for
cleanup of building interiors after a terrorist attack.
Nadler notes he immediately requested that the EPA oversee cleanup of buildings he
believed to be dangerously contaminated by WTC debris. Well before the release of the
EPA's OIG report, Nadler had initiated an investigation and, in April 2002, issued a white
paper documenting what he says was EPA wrongdoing. A month later, and eight months after
the terrorist attacks, the EPA announced a limited cleanup plan for residences south of
Perhaps the most incendiary charge the OIG report noted was that the White House Council
on Environmental Quality, or CEQ, may inappropriately have influenced the EPA to add
reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.
Specifically, the report concluded that competing considerations, such as
national-security concerns and the desire to reopen Wall Street, played a role in the
EPA's air-quality assurances. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.,
Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., have requested a hearing to investigate
the assertion of White House collusion in the EPA's misleading public statements. In a
letter to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla.,
the group expressed concern that the CEQ might have pressured the EPA to downplay risks to
public health near ground zero.
But while the Bush administration's political adversaries are focusing on possible White
House influence on the EPA, some agency critics were skeptical of what one described as
EPA attempts to deflect blame.
"I don't think they were just following orders," speculated Hugh Kaufman, a
former chief investigator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
"Remember, the only thing the IG said was that unsigned press releases were changed
at the White House's request." He notes that Whitman, who since has resigned from the
EPA, told Newsweek that the White House never ordered her to lie. But he adds, "it is
obvious that she did nothing but lie."
As Insight reported last June, the EPA administrator had plenty of problems stemming from
the catastrophe at the WTC. She had pledged in an ethics agreement to recuse herself from
participating, "personally and substantially," in matters that had a
"direct and predictable" effect on bonds held by the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey, which owned and leased the WTC. So why did the former New Jersey governor,
who has investor affiliations with Citicorp, parent of the insurer of much of Lower
Manhattan, become actively involved with highly dubious communications designed to
mitigate resident concerns about the safety of returning to the area?
"At the time she was the leading public-health official for the government. She was
called upon by all of the emergency-response organizations to help coordinate the
response," says Lisa Harrison, an EPA spokeswoman. Harrison calls allegations of a
conflict of interest "unfortunate." She says, "No one had any concerns
other than that of safety for the people of New York." And the decisions were taken
in conjunction with the other agencies involved, she explains.
One congressional critic attributed the CEQ's involvement more to like-mindedness than
collusion. "They all had the same interest there," the critic says.
"Whitman certainly had a conflict of interest that has been documented, and the head
of CEQ had an interest in protecting the affected insurance companies. I don't know that
the insurance companies even had to make a phone call. But also there was the idea of
having to get Wall Street up and running. That was prevalent. There was a huge concern
over what would happen when Wall Street finally reopened."
Political influence and expediency notwithstanding, the OIG pointed out that
responsibility for informing the public of environmental health risks lies with the EPA.
The report states, "An overriding lesson learned was that EPA needs to be prepared to
assert its opinion and judgment on matters that impact human health and the environment.
Although many organizations were involved in addressing air-quality concerns resulting
from the WTC collapse, subsequent events have demonstrated that, ultimately, the public,
Congress and others expect EPA to monitor and resolve environmental issues."
Today, EPA spokeswoman Harrison acknowledges to Insight, "We are a public-health
agency. It was a terrorist act. Would we have done things differently" in a
nonemergency situation? "Sure, who wouldn't have?"
Officials from both EPA and NYCDOH indicate that they based their assurances on the
likelihood of "long-term" risks and advised medical attention for people who
experienced symptoms of respiratory problems a subtle parsing that no doubt was
lost on WTC neighbors and heroic emergency workers from all over the country who
volunteered for the cleanup and body recovery.
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