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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 NYCOSH.

What's related:
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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