Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

It's public be damned at the EPA
By Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News, August 26th, 2003

For nearly two years, officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency have denied that they failed to properly inform New Yorkers of the dangers of toxic releases from the collapse of the World Trade Center. But last week, an investigation released by the EPA's own inspector general made a stunning revelation: The trail of public health misinformation began inside the White House.

The news that White House staff ordered the EPA to minimize potential health dangers near Ground Zero was bad enough. But the details in the 165-page report about how the EPA lied to the public - and even subverted its own safety standards in the process - are chilling.

The original draft of a Sept. 13, 2001, EPA press release, for example, stated, "Even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation ..."

Staff members at the White House Council on Environmental Quality turned those words upside down.

"Short-term, low-level exposure [to asbestos] of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of theWorld Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects," the revised report stated.

EPA officials took the position early on that people living in the World Trade Center area should have large amounts of dust removed from their apartments by professional asbestos cleaners.

But White House staff removed any references to professional cleaning from the EPA's releases.

The White House changes were the work of James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Connaughton, who had been on the job for three months, was an industry lawyer who represented major asbestos and toxic polluters before his appointment by President Bush.

"We were making decisions about where the information should be released," Connaughton told USA Today. "What the best way to communicate the information was, so that people could respond responsibly and so that people had a good relative sense of potential risk."

According to the scathing new report, the EPA passed off a misleading minimum asbestos safety standard of 70 fibers per square millimeter - though its own policy for years has stated there is no known safe level of asbestos.

"EPA's communications during the WTC crisis - that the general public did not need to be concerned about short-term exposure to WTC asbestos - were inconsistent with the agency's prior position that all asbestos exposure is hazardous to human health," the report said.

The misinformation didn't just involve asbestos.

Former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced on Sept. 18, 2001, that the air in lower Manhattan was "safe" to breathe. But her agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make the statement" at the time, the report said.

On that date, the EPA had not yet received the results of its first tests for toxics like cadmium, chromium, dioxin or PCBs.

Unanswered question

Only weeks later, this column reported that some of the EPA's own tests showed dangerous levels of both asbestos and other toxic chemicals in and around Ground Zero.

The EPA and city health officials responded at the time by blasting the Daily News' report as "irresponsible."

"The answer to whether the outdoor air around WTC was 'safe' to breathe may not be settled for years to come," the inspector general's investigation concluded.

EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko sharply criticized the report's conclusions as "out of touch with the reality."

But it's now clear that the EPA and the White House risked the safety of thousands of people living and working in lower Manhattan, whose only mistake was looking to the government for reliable, honest information.


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