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Conclusions

Certainly, because of the complexity of the issues confronting the city, there was a need to call in federal officials from many agencies. With its new authorization, FEMA assigned 11 Federal agencies to respond to the attack. Among the Federal agencies it tasked to respond were the Department of Defense, Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Forest Service, Public Health Service, and EPA.

Environmental health essentially fell under two agencies: EPA and Health and Human Services (HHS). According to the White House fact sheet on the agencies’ mandates, EPA, which had in the first two weeks provided 200 of its personnel, dealt with:  “monitoring the disaster sites to ensure that rescue workers and the public are not facing dangerous environmental risks”; “cleaning and washing down of all workers, equipment, and resources employed during the rescue stage; “sampling air, water, and asbestos as well as conducting radiological and dust monitoring”: “vacuuming and cleaning sidewalks, streets, and buildings in the World Trade Center area.”

HHS had made available “about 100 doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to staff two treatment stations to provide round-the-clock medical care to rescue and recovery workers toiling in the aftermath of the attack in New York City.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had also sent people to assist the New York City Health Department in tending to patient care and whatever was needed from a health standpoint.

But when it came to managing the environmental health side of the situation, some say there should have been an even stronger federal management role.

 “It was clear that at the local level New York officials weren’t ready to respond to something of this complexity.”

“FEMA should have been designated to oversee the catastrophe,” says Paul Lioy, a professor of environmental and community medicine at the University of Dentistry and Medicine at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But this agency was used to mud, floods, and natural disasters—not dust, like one would have in an industrial accident.”

It was a mistake to have local agencies manage the environmental aspects of the crisis, according to Lioy, because “the local agencies were not prepared to respond to a disaster of this scale.”

WTC site.
Photo: Earl Dotter

Some agree. “It was clear that at the local level New York officials weren’t ready to respond to something of this complexity,” says Alison Geyh, of John Hopkins.

Other experts would later write that much of the attention would be focused on vast physical hazards and challenges posed by cleaning up “the pile” rather than the complex, unprecedented range of environmental hazards facing rescuers, emergency responders and residents in the surrounding community.

 

 “Initial sampling at Ground Zero was hampered by the general chaos and uncertainty, the ongoing fire, and by treatment of Ground Zero as a crime scene by federal agencies,” writes Lioy. And air sampling, for example, to check for contaminants was substantially delayed, by about a week.

 

 “Considering the total surprise and resulting chaos, the response by various organizations was reasonable. However, it is also apparent that no agency was prepared to deal with the devastation of this magnitude in a major urban area,” he adds.

 

“At Ground Zero, they discounted the environmental hazards, even though this was no ordinary building collapse,” says Westchester County’s Anthony Sutton. “As the operation wore on, and time was no longer a factor, people could have stepped back and made it a priority. Before they sent in workers for a protracted amount of time, they should have very early on, established baseline pulmonary function tests on workers to detect any obstructions to their lungs.”

 

Months later, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Congressman representing "Ground Zero" and the surrounding areas, argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have taken the lead role. EPA, he charged, “has failed in its mission to "protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment . . ." by not exercising its full authority to test and clean all indoor spaces where people live and work.  As such, the EPA has created a full-scale crisis of public confidence.”

 

His contention was that there was a huge gap in the agencies’ assessments due to potentially adverse health effects from indoor air pollution caused by very fine particulates seeping through fabrics and tiny building crevices. 

 

Even though many of EPA Regions responded within the first few days, EPA’s Region II office turned some away, including Region 8, which had particular expertise in asbestos.

 

 

He argued that the EPA had the clear authority to respond to the release of hazardous substances that may present an imminent and substantial danger to public health under the “National Contingency Plan,” authorized by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

 

Other critics have also called attention to the fact that even though many of EPA Regions responded within the first few days, EPA’s Region II office turned some away, including Region 8, which had particular expertise in asbestos.

 

A veteran hazardous waste expert at the EPA, Cate Jenkins charged that the EPA used a much more sensitive method for settled dust sampling which found a “positive” result for hazardous materials in its own building, yet turned away the services of the other region, which could have applied the same expertise more widely helping the people of New York determine the hazards of the dust in their homes and offices.

 

Likewise, others say officials in New York viewed hazards differently than at the Pentagon.

Places where workers were decontaminated were called “decon” at the Pentagon, officials say, but “washdown” stations at Ground Zero.

Despite such critiques, many environmental health specialists called in to advise in the crisis expressed praise for the first responders in New York.

“Agencies without having a plan did a terrific job,” says Alison Geyh, an assistant professor at John Hopkins University who came in to help with assessing risks for rescue workers.

However, the city was not clear about which agency was overseeing the health and safety aspects, wrote Donald Elisburg and John Moran of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

 

“This situation created a very complex safety and health setting in which there was confusion as to which occupational safety and health standards were applicable, whether enforcement agencies indeed had enforcement jurisdiction, and at what point in time the WTC Disaster Site safety and Health Plan would become effective and operative,” they wrote.