Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

EPA is censured for saying NY air was safe after attack
By Stevenson Swanson, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe & LA Times contributed to report, February 12, 2002

     NEW YORK - Federal environmental officials came under heavy criticism Monday for telling New Yorkers that pollution posed no problem in lower Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. By reassuring the public that the air around the trade center was safe, the Environmental Protection Agency misled the public, charged Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., testifying at a Senate subcommittee hearing on air quality.
     Most of the pollution came from the dust resulting from the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11. Afterwards, much of the pollution came from the fires in the excavation site, which raged until late December. The EPA's national ombudsman, Robert J. Martin, noted in a written statement to a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the EPA "has provided erroneous information to the public" and has "not used the best available technology to measure asbestos levels."
     Martin wrote that other hazardous materials -- including benzene, lead, mercury and fiberglass, all of them potentially cancer-causing agents -- "pose a risk to the public health and environment."  A U.S. Geological Survey team found last September that some of the dust from the site was as caustic as drain cleaner, because of the high concentration of cement dust, an alkaline substance. The team's conclusion, reported Sunday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was sent to several government agencies in late September, but none of them made the finding public.
     And scientists at the University of California at Davis reported Monday that smoke and dust from the destroyed World Trade Center exposed residents of lower Manhattan to weeks of some of the highest levels of air pollution ever studied. Samples of air collected about a mile from the World Trade Center site from Oct. 2 to mid-December show extraordinarily elevated levels of tiny particles laced with soot and metals, the researchers said. Fires smoldering in the rubble turned glass, concrete and computer equipment into an aerosol fallout that was far more intense and persistent than expected.
     The results showed that the level of particles in New York's air outdid even the worst pollution from the Kuwait oil field fires. At the hearing in New York, several witnesses sharply criticized the EPA for what they characterized as excessively rosy statements. The agency's director, Christie Whitman, announced Sept. 18 that she was "glad to reassure the people of New York that . . . their air is safe to breathe, and their water is safe to drink."
     Jane M. Kenny, EPA's regional administrator, defended the agency. "We used the most extensive testing ever," she said. "There was a lot of confusion about what exactly was safe, and was not. . . . The people in public service were doing the best they could." But Nadler said the EPA's statements were based only on outdoor monitoring and did not take into account the potential for cancer-causing asbestos and other toxins from the burning trade center debris to reach high concentrations in nearby apartments and offices. "We now know enough to be alarmed and outraged at the federal government's response to the environmental impact of Sept. 11," he told Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "New York was at the center of one of the most calamitous events in American history, and the EPA has essentially walked away."
     The EPA was responsible for monitoring outdoor air quality, but shortly after Sept. 11, it delegated responsibility for ensuring that indoor air was safe to New York City agencies.

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