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,, 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 their families.

"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 devices.

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 Canal Street.

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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