Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Bush forced to
cover World Trade Center health claims
By Clare Hurley, World Socialist Website, April 23, 2004
Already struggling to contain the damage caused by recent revelations concerning its
failure to take any action to prevent the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and
Washington, the Bush administration moved quickly last week to avert another potentially
embarrassing 9/11 scandal.
Last month, acting through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the
administration attempted to weasel out of its pledge to pay health claims for injuries
incurred by workers engaged in the rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade
Center site. It was one more example of the hypocrisy of the administration, which invokes
September 11 to justify all of its policies while exhibiting contempt for those who have
suffered serious health problems as a result of responding to the terrorist attacks.
According to the Mount Sinai Medical Health Screening Program for WTC-Site Responders, of
the 9,000 people monitored, more than half, or at least 4,000, are sick, primarily with
respiratory or mental health symptoms, or both. So far, 2,357 claims have been filed
against the New York City government. If FEMA had gotten its way, the city would have been
liable for up to $350 million of these health costs before the federal program took
effect. The impact upon the citys already strained budget would have been
Faced with an unprecedented health crisis of both an immediate and protracted nature, the
Bush administration tried to shirk its responsibilityin this case financialfor
the 9/11 attacks by resorting to narrow legalistic interpretations.
FEMA argued that claims related to work carried out between September 11 and September 29,
2001the most intensive and dangerous period in the immediate aftermath of the
attackswere not technically "clean-up" related, but rather were rescue
efforts and therefore not covered by a $1 billion federal fund established to pay such
The fund itself was not created out of concern for the health of the workers on the site.
Rather, it was enacted by Congress to protect the New York City government and the four
contracting companies engaged in the clean-upTully, AMEC, Bovis and
Turnerbecause no commercial insurance companies would agree to provide liability
coverage for the dangerous site.
The potential costs in health claims were recognized at the time, quite rightly, as an
untenable financial risk, given the scope and scale of the clean-up and the largely
unknown health implications of exposure to a variety of contaminants, in addition to
physical and psychological injuries. The city and the construction companies faced huge
losses if they were uninsured. The fund was therefore carved out of the overall aid
package of $21.5 billion pledged by the Bush administration to New York City immediately
after the attacks so that the clean-up work could go forward.
It is not surprising that the Bush administration tried to stiff the workers and the city
when the bills came due. The administration was merely treating these workers and New York
City the same way it treats all workers, as well as municipal and state governments across
the country, many of which have been bankrupted by the loss of federal funds for social
services. But in this case, a number of overriding political considerations made this
Given the Republican Partys choice of New York City as the site of its 2004
nominating convention, an embarrassing squabble with the city government over who is
responsible for paying medical claims for injured WTC-site workers had to be avoided.
Thus, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and members of the New York congressional
delegation vociferously disputed FEMAs interpretation, the administration backed
down within a week.
A public confrontation between the city and the federal government over the insurance
funds would have proved embarrassing from several standpoints.
Firstly, a further exposure of the administrations failure not only to prevent but
to adequately respond to the attacks, including taking measures to provide for the health
needs of those engaged in rescue and clean-up operations, would quickly become as
politically charged as the recent revelations made before the 9/11 Commission.
The $350 million in health claims presently under dispute represents only a fraction of
the full cost of medical screening and treatment that will be required over the long term
for those who worked at "ground zero." Cancer resulting from exposure to
asbestos, for example, does not develop for 10 to 15 years. And while the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), under the direct orders of the National Security Council headed
by Condoleezza Rice, consistently denied the presence of dangerous levels of asbestos in
the air around the WTC site, it has since admitted that more than 25 percent of the bulk
dust samples collected before September 18, 2001, showed the presence of asbestos above
the 1 percent benchmark. The EPA also claims it is unable to predict the effects of
exposure to PCBs, particulate matter (e.g., pulverized cement), dioxin and other
contaminants released by the WTC collapse.
The EPA has also been forced to admit, in a report released in August 2003, that all its
press releases in the aftermath of 9/11 had to go through the White Houses Council
on Environmental Quality and the National Security Council, and that as a result all
information about damaging health effects had been edited out.
So it would come as no surprise if buried somewhere in the EPAs files there was a
memo from September 2001 entitled "WTC Air Unsafe to Breathe." If such a
document were to emerge, the White House would no doubt claim that it contained only
More importantly, because President Bush has consistently sought to pitch his bid for
re-election based on his purported image as a steady leader through the crisis of 9/11,
the mounting evidence of his administrations utter disregard for those people who
directly responded to this crisis and are now suffering the consequences has potentially
devastating political consequences.
When the Bush-Cheney campaign ran $41 million worth of ads in March displaying images of
the destroyed World Trade Towers and a flag-draped coffin, it outraged New York City
firefighters and victims families who felt their grief and heroism were being
crassly co-opted for political purposes.
And now the choice of New York City for the Republican national convention site is being
questioned within the party itself. The New York Times quoted longtime Republican
political operative and Bush supporter Roger Stone as saying, "The premise for coming
to New York is no longer valid. Karl Roves masterstroke idea may turn out to be an
unmitigated disaster. It has the potential to highlight an issue that may be negative by
the time he [Bush] gets to the convention."
This will certainly be the case, as the Bush Administration proves increasingly unable to
suppress the full toll taken by its criminal policies, including upon the workers who
sacrificed their health to conduct the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade
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