Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Foul air lingers at the EPA  
Chicago Tribune Editorial, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. September 11, 2003

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there were serious concerns about whether the collapse of the World Trade Center had left the air around ground zero filled with asbestos, PCBs and other toxins, making it unsafe for workers and residents.

Seven days after the attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency reassured New Yorkers in a statement that "their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe."

But the EPA had not gathered nearly enough data to make such a sweeping declaration, according to a troubling report by EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley. At the time of the Sept. 18 statement, the EPA still lacked data for PCBs and dioxin, among some other important "pollutants of concern," Tinsley's report said.

The EPA didn't reveal those qualifiers. In fact, at the urging of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the EPA added reassuring language and deleted words of caution the agency's scientists had included in a draft version.

Christie Todd Whitman, who resigned in May as EPA administrator, confirmed the changes in an interview with Newsweek. The White House never told her to lie, she said, and she did not object when the words of caution were deleted.

Why? "We didn't want to scare people," she explained.

One can easily appreciate the administration's desire to avoid a panic and to restore the Wall Street financial district to a state of normalcy as quickly as possible. But the public looks to the EPA for facts, not spin. In this case, the "spin" may have endangered public health.

EPA policy has considered asbestos to be hazardous at any level. But after meetings with staff members at the Council on Environmental Quality, the original draft of a Sept. 13, 2001, EPA press statement was changed. The draft read, "Even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation." That was changed to read, "Short-term, low-level exposure (to asbestos) of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects."

Outside air, according to independent inspectors, was safe once the dust cloud settled. But White House staff also deleted warnings in press releases that residents of the World Trade Center area should have large amounts of dust removed from their apartments by professional asbestos cleaners, instead of doing the cleaning themselves.

Did the EPA's premature assurances harm anyone's health? That's not certain. But complaints of dry coughs and other ailments among workers at ground zero and residents of nearby buildings have run into the thousands. About 40 percent of the 6,300 workers and volunteers screened by Mount Sinai Medical Center have suffered from respiratory problems.

There's no way around it: The EPA had an obligation to inform workers and residents fully of potential hazards they would face in the area, and the EPA failed in that obligation. That failure may have put public health at risk and has seriously damaged the credibility of the EPA. More damaging: EPA officials have attempted to dismiss the significance of their own inspector general's report.

Now there is fallout for the EPA and the Bush administration. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has put a hold on the nomination of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as EPA administrator until the administration answers her concerns about the report. The White House says Clinton is attempting to "politicize" the nomination.

The White House had better recognize that people see nothing political about the air they breathe. The administration has to come clean about what information was changed, who was involved in the decision and how it will avoid twisting the information the public receives.

2003, Chicago Tribune.


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