Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 3. Was environmental health protected on 9/11? Whistleblowers, watchdogs and wee little people >Post script

Post script

 

Photo: Paul Olivier

Journalist Juan Gonzalez writes that the government officials who made early blanket assurances of safety made a “grave mistake,” and argues that “their continued defense of those assurances in the face of widespread public skepticism” is inexcusable.

 

When asked, Police Captain Terrence Revella doesn’t feel that there was any attempt to mislead people but admits, “Saying there was no hazard to people—that was a little much.”

 

So far, though, few officials are willing to publicly acknowledge some of their blunders.

 

However, the much-publicized final report of Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general (25), in an investigation into official statements about air quality after the collapse of the World Trade Center, has now found that White House officials instructed the agency to downplay and reassure the public in the first few days after the attack. The report says the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses" to make a "blanket statement" when it announced seven days after the attack that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe. " The report cites other competing considerations, such “reopening Wall Street” and “national security,” as reasons for the spin.

 

The final report by EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), released August 21, states, among other criticisms, that the White House reviewed and even changed EPA statements about public health risks to make them sound less alarming. The report charges that the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced “the information EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statement and delete cautionary ones.”

 

It also concluded that EPA presented “an overriding message that there was no significant threat to human health” even though there was cause for caution. “When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was ‘safe’ to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” said the OIG, adding that the agency lacked data on other pollutants, such as particulates and chemicals like PCBs, and had samples of dust showing that 25 percent contained asbestos, a potent carcinogen.

 

According to the report, on the morning of Sept. 12, EPA former Administrator Christie Whitman issued a memo stating, “All statement to the media should be cleared through the NSC (National Security Council) in the White House before they are released.” A contact person at the Council on Environmental Quality was named to vet all press releases.

 

The Inspector General’s 165-page report compares EPA’s own drafts of press releases to their final versions after having been vetted by the White House. Here are some examples:

 

·         Although EPA’s position has been that WTC residents should obtain a professional cleaning, the final press release” deleted this information and instructed them to refer to the city’s Department of Health instructions instead.

·         Although EPA had wanted to give specific warnings for “sensitive populations”—i.e. asthmatics, parents of young children, the elderly, etc.—those warnings were also removed.

·         One press release that would have said “recent samples of dust gathered by OSHA show higher levels of asbestos in EPA tests” was changed to state "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."

·         In another draft, the language would have said asbestos levels in some areas were two to three times higher than national was changed to “slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material."

·         A draft that would have said initial tests failed to turn up dangers instead added the statement:  "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district."

·         A statement warning of potential lead and asbestos exposure at Ground Zero was changed to state that while some contaminants had been found, "the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling."

 

EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko told MSNBC news that the press releases and how they might have been changed ought to be balanced against an awareness of the dimensions of the challenge on 9/11. Coordinating communication among agencies was a “huge challenge for us,” she says. 

 

 In the early days and weeks of the World Trade Center disaster, says Horinko, there was such chaos that mistakes were inevitably made. “Did we rush out (too soon) with data? On balance, I think we used our best professional judgment in an atmosphere where people were clamoring for answers.” But the agency wasn’t trying to deceive the public, she claims. (26)

 

In the future, Horinko told NEHA, there will certainly be efforts to make sure people are not reassured wrongly and that health risks are accurately described.

 

In the Inspector General’s report, Tinsley tempers her criticism with a recognition of the unprecedented challenges of the agency and the bravery and dedication of its employees. “This report, initiated by the OIG early in 2002, found that EPA staff did a commendable job reacting to the unprecedented disaster,” Tinsley concludes. “Nonetheless, many problems were encountered and changes should be made so that EPA can better respond to future disasters.

 

“Unfortunately, our country lives under the threat of future terrorist attacks, and it is important that we use what we have learned from the World Trade Center tragedy to make improvements to our emergency response capabilities,” Tinsley concludes.

 

The report set off a political firestorm, both in the local New York community and among Democrats in Congress.

 

“This release of this report has had a tremendous impact on those of us living around Ground Zero,” says downtown New York resident Pat Dillon, who lives in a high rise six short blocks of the former World Trade Center. “Many of us who had enormous difficulty raising attention to these issues in the past now suddenly have an ear from those who were at first skeptical of the environmental and health effects.”

 

Many New Yorkers expressed outrage at the report that the White House influenced environmental officials to downplay hazards posed by the toxic dust that fell in an avalanche over the city. Kim Todd, longsuffering downtown resident, who still lives several blocks from the former towers, says she’s angry. “I might not have stayed down here—with dust on me for days—had I known of the dangers,” she told MSNBC. “We were all lied to, and I’m afraid everybody is going to be seriously sick.”

 

Meanwhile congressional Democrats, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Committee Ranking Members John Dingell (D-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), George Miller (D-CA), and Henry Waxman (D-CA) in September 2003 called on Speaker Hastert to launch a Congressional investigation into EPA's response to World Trade Center contaminants.

In their demand for a Congressional investigation, the legislators cited studies that they said  “show that 78 percent of emergency responders, who traveled from all over the country to work at Ground Zero, reported at least one World Trade Center-related lung symptom as a result of their work at the site. Doctors have also documented thousands of cases of New York City residents and workers who have become sick after they returned to their homes, offices and schools around Ground Zero.”

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stated, "The Environmental Protection Agency knew there were air pollution risks and failed to act.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently released its oversight report of how EPA handled the aftermath of September 11. According to the committee, it “transcends the EPA Inspector General investigation, which, because of limited jurisdiction, lacked authority to question officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), who were intimately involved in the decision making process after September 11,” it wrote in a press release.  

 

The report’s five conclusions, according to the committee, include:

·         That “EPA acted properly in its response to the World Trade Center collapse, as well as in its communications with the public regarding exposure risks faced by workers and residents near the catastrophe”; 

·         That the Administration “did not suppress any public health information or data. EPA’s communications reflected the prevailing coordinated views expressed by agencies weighing in on the risks posed by asbestos;

·         That “EPA went beyond its statutory obligations in its attempts to protect public health;

·         That “the Council on Environmental Quality’s "influence" on EPA's communications was a proper function delegated to it by the President for coordinating environmental health and safety decisions and information between EPA and OSHA.

·         And that “On matters of indoor air in the fall of 2001, it was proper for EPA to defer to New York City, which was assigned the lead role.”

Time will be the best judge of whether or not the government did enough to protect the public health.

But Ground Zero neighborhood advocates argue that the EPA’s insistence that exposure to World Trade Center dust would not be likely to pose “short term or long term health risks” has already been proved wrong.  Eric Goldstein, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, calculates that at least 30,000 people were affected by short-term illnesses. The New York Firefighters Union points to thousands of members suffering from chronic illnesses, some of whom have even gotten sicker, not better, over time.

There is nothing that can be done now to bring back the lives of those lost in the towers, nor to bring back the health of those survivors or rescuers who were injured. But 9/11 should serve as a “warning shot” for the future. And there’s one issue everyone should agree upon: As long as environmental health is regarded as a disposable item, no lessons will be learned for the future.

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

(1) Palmer, Brian CNN Online, Oct 1, 2001

http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/10/01/rec.air.quality/]

(2) Palmer, Brian,  CNN Online, 11/04/01

http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/11/04/rec.environmental.concerns/

(3) Lyman, Francesca, MSNBC Online 9/26/01

http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/634336.asp?0cb=-41552104&cp1=1

(3) Jackson, Brian, “Protecting Emergency Responders”  (California, RAND, 2002), p. 16

(4) Gonzalez, Juan, “A Toxic Nightmare at a Disaster Site,”  10/26/01

 http://www.nyenvirolaw.org/PDF/Daily%20Cover%20%20Story%20-%20A%20Toxic%20Nightmare%20At%20Disaster%20Site.pdf.

(5) France, David, Newsweek, “Is Ground Zero Safe?”, 10/05/01

http://www.msnbc.com/news/638853.asp

(6) Gonzalez, Juan, "Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse" (The New Press) http://www.thenewpress.com/newbooks/fallout.htm

(7) http://www.immuneweb.org/911/pr/100801.html

(8) Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/commentary/106.burger.shtml

(9) MSNBC, staff and wire reports http://landofpuregold.com/truth3.htm

(10) Palmer, Brian, CNN Online, Oct. 1, 2001

http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/10/01/rec.air.quality/

(11) “Ground Zero Workers Safe,” Newsday, 10/26/01”

(12) Jenkins, Cate, Memo to EPA 12/03/01

http://www.nyenvirolaw.org/PDF/Jenkins-12-3-01-WTCasbestos.pdf

(13) Yearning to Breathe in a Toxic Zone, MSNBC,  Jan. 11, 2002. http://landofpuregold.com/truth6.htm

(14) Congressional Research Service Report. Federal Disaster Policies After Terrorist

Strikes: Issues and Options for Congress. June 24, 2002. Coordinated by Keith Bea. CRS

Order Code RL31464

(15) http://www.senate.gov/~epw/107th/Nadler_062502.htm


(16) http://www.nycosh.org/WTCcatastrophe/EPA%20White%20Paper%20Final%204_12.pdf

 

(17) Goodman, Troy, “Ground Zero Air More Hazardous Than EPA Admits,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 10, 2002

(18) Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation, on April 12, 2002

 

(19) Gittrich, Greg, Daily News, 5/14/02

 

(20) Julie Scelfo, Newsweek, 3/15/02

http://www.msnbc.com/news/724974.asp

 

(21) Scheuerman, Arthur

http://ericdarton.net/afterwords/fireandair.html

 

(22)  Senator George V. Voinovich

 http://www.senate.gov/~epw/107th/voi_092402.htm

 

(23)   Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, “Assessment of Injuries among Survivors of the Terrorist Attack on the World Trade Center—New York City, September, 2001,” MMWR Journal Weekly, Jan. 11, 2002.

 

(24) http://www.comptroller.nyc.gov/

Press release, New York City Comptroller’s office/ Comptroller William C. Thompson

 

(25)http://www.epa.gov/oigearth/ereading_room/WTC_report_20030821.pdf

 

(26) “Anger builds over 9/11 report,” MSNBC Online, 9/11/03

http://www.msnbc.com/news/963407.asp

(27) Other comments from Congress:

Rep. John Dingell, Ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, stated, 'The White House was wrong when it told EPA to ‘add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones’ in their report on the air quality in Lower Manhattan. This put the heroes and victims of September 11th at further, and needless risk. We need to investigate what EPA knew, and what it didn’t know. And we need an objective look at how the White House influenced EPA’s report. We can then see what needs to be done to ensure that the American public is not misled again.”

Rep. John Conyers, Ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee, stated, "From providing the American public with faulty assurances to downplaying significant environmental and health risks, the EPA's IG report clearly documents a pattern and practice of corruption and cover-ups that has placed the lives of countless emergency responders, rescue volunteers and New York city residents in harms way. What's most disturbing is a majority of the actions undertaken by the Administration were carried out all in the name of political gamesmanship."

Rep. George Miller, Senior Democrat of the House Education and Workforce Committee, stated, "The men and women who put their lives on the line day and night for weeks in the Ground Zero pit and at the Pentagon have a right to know who at the White House Council on Environmental Quality whitewashed the EPA reports on the hazards at the rescue sites, as documented by the EPA inspector general; a right to know their health and safety was paramount in the minds of those federal officials charged with protecting them; and a right to compensation for the equipment they brought to protect their health, especially in light of the serious underestimations of risk by the EPA and OSHA."

Rep. Waxman, Ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, stated, "While political meddling in EPA's work is a hallmark of this Administration, it is outrageous that the White House would gag EPA from keeping the public adequately informed after a terrorist attack on our country."

In a letter to Speaker Hastert, the congress members asked that Congressional hearings be convened immediately in relevant House committees, including the Committees on Energy and Commerce, Education and the Workforce, Government Reform, and the Judiciary, to know what further action must be taken to safeguard the health and lives of those affected by the EPA's response to the terrorist attacks.

 http://www.house.gov/nadler/EPA_091703.htm