Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Political Storm Develops
after EPA Inspector General Reports that White House Downplayed Post-9/11 Health Hazards
NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health,
September 24, 2003
An EPA Office of Inspector General's (OIG)
report on EPA response to collapse of the World Trade Center is provoking a strong
reaction from elected officials, public health experts, union officials and environmental
organizations. According to the report, which was published on August 21, the White House
Council on Environmental Quality, also known as the CEQ, and National Security Council
suppressed EPA warnings about potentially dangerous environmental contamination, ordering
EPA to replace warnings with misleading statements that there was no cause for concern.
The OIG report presents a detailed comparison between press releases drafted by EPA staff
and the final text that was released after discussions between EPA and a CEQ official.
"The CEQ official's suggested changes added reassuring statements and deleted
cautionary statements," says the report. "Every change that was suggested by the
CEQ contact was made." According to the EPA chief of staff, "final approval came
from the White House." According to the OIG, the chief of staff "told us that
other considerations, such as the desire to reopen Wall Street and national security
concerns, were considered when preparing EPA's early press releases."
The changes resulted in the EPA publishing information that was the reverse of language in
the draft, such as an asbestos level that was originally describes as "hazardous in
this situation" being changed to "no significant levels of asbestos." One
EPA draft said that buildings contaminated by the collapse should be cleaned by
professionals. The advice in the published version was to follow instructions of New York
City officials, who said that the cleanup could be performed with mops and wet rags.
In addition to the criticism of a White House-directed cover-up of the hazard in Lower
Manhattan, the OIG report contends that the EPA's cleanup of Lower Manhattan should be
reconsidered, "to provide greater assurances that the program is fully protective of
human health." The report identifies six major shortcomings. Specifically, the
cleanup was limited to residences and did not include workplaces; EPA did not
"ensur[e] that the cleanup meets minimum Superfund site cleanup goals;" the
cleanup did not remove all toxic materials spread by the collapse; the testing methods
used after a cleanup did not identify all areas that have not been sufficiently
decontaminated; the cleanup did not prevent the recontamination of cleaned up areas; and
the cleanup did not cover all places that were affected by the collapse, including areas
north of Canal Street in Manhattan, areas in Brooklyn and possibly areas in Jersey City.
The OIG called on EPA to begin a new cleanup, designed to remedy the flaws identified in
the first attempted cleanup. Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horikno rejected most of
the OIG report's conclusions, saying, "Under unbelievably trying conditions, EPA did
the best that it could."
Soon after the OIG document was published, a second event reinforced the point that
conditions in Lower Manhattan were more hazardous than had been publicly disclosed. At the
annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Manhattan, a set of papers were
released about the makeup of the dust and fumes resulting from the collapse and the
resulting fires. The papers showed that the fires that burned in the debris pile until
December 20, 2001, produced a mix of toxic gasses and ultra-fine particulate matter that
was unlike anything ever seen in any outdoor environment. "The debris pile acted like
a chemical factory," said the author of one of the papers, Thomas Cahill, professor
emeritus of physics and engineering at the University of California at Davis. "It
cooked together the components of the buildings and their contents, including enormous
numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least
six weeks," he said.
Cahill's data showed that most of the fumes from the fire were hot enough to rise quickly
to high altitudes, but, "there were at least eight days when the plume was pushed
down into the city. Then people tasted it, smelled it and saw it. But people who worked in
the pile were getting it every day. The workers are the ones that I worry about
most," he said. That concern that was echoed by EPA chemist Erick Swartz, who
observed levels of hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) six times higher than
levels considered dangerous in smog. "The exposures at Ground Zero lasted for
months," said Swartz. "The measurements we have seen are certainly worthy of the
most serious kind of concern."
The OIG report produced a strong reaction. Union leaders in both New York and Washington
joined in the demand for action based on the OIG report's findings. On Sept. 15 New York
City union representatives and others met with the press to publicize their demands. The
event, which was sponsored by NYCOSH, the Sierra Club, and 9/11 Environmental Action, was
endorsed by Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (UAW Local 2325), Communications Workers of
America, District One, Professional Staff Congress, Local 78 LIUNA (Asbestos & Lead
Abatement Workers), National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), Chapter 293, and Transport
Workers Union, Local 100. Each of the unions represents workers who have been directly
affected by the 9/11 contamination. The organizations called for full disclosure of all
information about 9/11-related contamination, an effective cleanup of all affected places
and health care for everyone adversely affected by World Trade Center pollution.
In Washington, on Sept. 17, the heads of 19 union locals representing EPA employees issued
a statement denouncing White House interference with their work. "Little did the
Civil Service expect that their professional work would be subverted by political pressure
applied by the White House," it read. "This unwarranted and inexcusable
interference with the professional work of the Civil Service by politicians reporting
directly to President Bush caused rescue workers and residents to be exposed to health
risks that could have been, indeed should have been, avoided." The statement was
signed by 10 locals of the American Federation of Government Employees, four locals of the
National Association of Government Employees, four locals of the National Treasury
Employees Union, and one local of Engineers and Scientists of California.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler was the first elected official to respond to the release of the OIG
report, calling a press conference two days after the report's release. Nadler called the
EPA actions described by the report "an abomination," adding, "White House
and EPA officials have blood on their hands because of their continuing failure to
this day to implement a proper cleanup for toxic contaminants." Nadler, who
has been sharply critical of EPA action in Lower Manhattan for nearly two years, called
for a new, expanded, cleanup of all affected places and for an official investigation that
would disclose the details of White House interference with post-9/11 EPA activity.
Seconding Nadler's call at the Aug. 23 press conference were New York City Councilmember
David Yassky, representatives of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project,
NYCOSH, and 9/11 Environmental Action.
The call for an investigation and a new cleanup was soon joined by other members of
Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), John Dingell (D-Mich.),
John Conyers (D-Mich.), George Miller (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who joined
Nadler at a Sept. 17 press conference. In a statement issued at the time, Rep. Conyers
said, "From providing the American public with faulty assurances to downplaying
significant environmental and health risks, the EPA's IG report clearly documents a
pattern and practice of corruption and cover-ups that has placed the lives of countless
emergency responders, rescue volunteers and New York city residents in harm's way."
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) said the report was evidence of the "highest breach of
faith," by EPA and the White House, adding, "They knew and they didn't tell us
the truth. And the White House told them not to tell us the truth." Clinton and
Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) wrote to President Bush that the OIG's allegations were
"galling and beyond comprehension" and requesting that Bush identify who on the
White House staff was responsible for changing the EPA press releases. To back up her
request for information from the White House, Clinton announced that she would put a
"hold" on the confirmation of the nominee to head the EPA, Utah governor Mike
Leavitt, until the White House answered her questions. By Senate tradition, any senator
can indefinitely block a confirmation hearing by this tactic. Senators Lieberman and John
Edwards (D-NC), said that they would join Clinton in blocking Leavitt's confirmation until
EPA provided the Senate with the requested information.
Elected officials from New York State and New York City, including state Senators David
Paterson, Martin Connor, Thomas Duane, Liz Krueger, and Eric Schneiderman and City
Councilmembers Alan Gerson, John Liu, and Margarita Lopez have also joined the call for a
new, expanded, cleanup of Lower Manhattan.
In Suffolk County, at the eastern end of Long Island, the county legislature's health and
education committee called for a federal investigation of the OIG report's findings at the
urging of Democratic legislators William Lindsay and Brian Foley. "Many Suffolk
County residents took part in rescue efforts during the days following the disaster and
many more returned to work in Lower Manhattan with the understanding that the air was safe
to breathe," said Lindsay in a written statement. Foley said, "Public health
consequences resulting from this cynical deception are staggering and unforgivable."
Two environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and the New York Environmental Law and
Justice Project, have joined the call for a new cleanup and full disclosure of information
about White House interference with the EPA.
Public health experts have also expressed concern about the OIG report. Steven Levin,
co-director of the Mt. Sinai - Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational &
Environmental Medicine, said that workers and residents were harmed by the EPA's
misleading statements. "There are people who would have worn respiratory protection
on that pile, but had been told, everything is okay. There were office workers who were
required to come back down to this area by their employers, who said, The EPA has told us
it's safe, you can come back." He also expressed doubt that EPA officials would be
able to correct matters on their own, saying, "You need an independent advisory board
that uses real data, not cover-up data."
Speaking at a press conference on Aug. 26, Philip Landrigan, the chair of Mount Sinai
Medical Center's Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, said the he was
"extremely disappointed" at having been misled by the EPA and having made
recommendations, based on misleading EPA data, which were wrong. As a result, "we
were probably somewhat over-reassuring in the advice we gave to families," he told
EPA Office of the Inspector General, "EPA's Response to the World Trade Center
Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement" August 21, 2003
NYCOSH, Excerpts from the Report of the EPA Inspector General (Thirteen pages of excerpts,
arranged by topic, from a 155-page document)
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