Congressman Calls for Investigation of EPA's 'Neglect and Lies' Following 9/11

Aug. 26, 2003
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is calling for a Congressional investigation into the White House's role in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) public statements about health concerns caused by World Trade Center contaminants following the attacks of 9/11 and the EPA's delay and neglect in initiating a proper clean-up plan of WTC dust.

Nadler also demanded a proper clean-up plan finally be implemented by EPA so residents and workers in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are not "slowly poisoned" by residual contaminants.

The White House's instructions to EPA to downplay air quality concerns after 9/11 was revealed in a report released Aug. 21 by the EPA's Inspector General (IG). Despite evidence toxic contaminants were contained in WTC debris, the EPA lied about health concerns and refused to initiate a clean-up plan, according to Nadler.

"The Department of Justice must investigate EPA's response to the clean-up of World Trade Center debris after 9/11. There are many revelations in the IG's report that are extremely troubling. That the White House instructed EPA officials to downplay the health impact of the World Trade Center contaminants due to 'competing considerations' at the expense of the health and lives of New York City residents is an abomination," Nadler proclaimed.

In a statement, EPA Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley, said, "This report...found that EPA staff did a commendable job reacting to the unprecedented disaster. Nonetheless, many problems were encountered and changes should be made so that EPA can better respond to future disasters."

According to Nadler and others, EPA passed responsibility for the clean-up to New York City, which was overburdened by the fallout of the attacks and had neither the expertise nor the resources to deal with an emergency of that scale. The "White House and EPA officials have blood on their hands because of their continuing failure to this day to implement a proper clean-up for toxic contaminants," said Nadler.

Nadler first requested that EPA clean up buildings contaminated by WTC debris shortly after the 9/11 attacks. To confirm the effects of the debris, Nadler initiated an investigation of the EPA's response in January 2002 and issued a White Paper documenting what he called the federal environmental agency's "wrongdoing" in April 2002. A full eight months following the terrorist attacks, the EPA announced a limited clean-up plan for residences south of Canal Street.

The IG's report stated: "Because asbestos is a carcinogen with no commonly accepted safe level of exposure, and approximately 18,000 residential units in Lower Manhattan have not been tested or cleaned through the indoor residential program, we continue to believe our recommendations are warranted to assure adequate health protection for residents in Lower Manhattan."

Nadler wants EPA to take immediate action to implement the recommendations of the IG and specifically, to collect and analyze indoor samples for contaminants and to implement a comprehensive clean-up plan with the following criteria:

  • Protect the health of people by ensuring that the new clean-up meets Superfund regulations and guidelines;
  • Treat contaminated buildings as a system. EPA's practice of selectively cleaning individual apartments does not ensure that cleaned apartments will not be re-contaminated by uncleaned apartments through the HVAC system;
  • Employ aggressive sampling methods rather than the useless passive sampling methods the EPA has employed to ascertain levels of asbestos and other contaminants;
  • Include work spaces and schools as well as residential buildings in the cleanup. Currently, EPA has refused to test any spaces other than residences; and
  • Include all geographic locations impacted by the WTC dust in the clean-up effort. EPA's decision to clean residences only south of Canal Street in Manhattan neglects the need for clean-up in locations that were under the dust cloud, including the Lower East Side, Chinatown and parts of Brooklyn. The IG report noted, "The area of the cleanup should be determined by collecting and analyzing samples starting at Ground Zero and radiating outward in concentric circles until the boundary of WTC contamination [is] determined."

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), which was involved with health screenings for workers exposed to hazards following cleanup work on the World Trade Center (WTC) site and surrounding buildings, is calling for an investigation by the Justice Department of what it calls White House "interference" of EPA's handling of WTC toxics.

"The EPA Inspector General's report shows that in the minds of high government officials the need to re-open Wall Street took precedence over the need to give the public accurate information about the hazards in Lower Manhattan," said William F. Henning Jr., chair of the NYCOSH Board of Directors.

"As the report indicates, the EPA jumped the gun when it said that the air was safe to breathe, ignoring evidence it had that called that conclusion into question," Henning continued.

The IG's report shows that the official line that the air was safe originated in the White House. In a Sept. 16, 2001, press release, EPA wanted to warn cleanup workers and workers who were about to return to their offices that recent asbestos samples were the basis for "concern." According to the report, someone in the White House took that sentence out and replaced it with: "The new samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."

When the IG compared an EPA draft press release to the version that was released after consultations with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), it observed that "Every change that was suggested by the CEQ contact was made. The CEQ official's suggested changes added reassuring statements and deleted cautionary statements."

"People in Lower Manhattan were being exposed and some continue to be exposed to toxic and carcinogenic substances resulting from the collapse," said NYCOSH Executive Director Joel Shufro. "That is why NYCOSH is calling on EPA to clean up all Lower Manhattan buildings, including workplaces. As the report shows, the EPA has determined policy based on politics and not science. The decision to clean residences and not workplaces is another example of that flawed decision-making process."

The IG's report includes a rebuttal from Marianne Horinko, the acting EPA administrator. "This document is infected with the attitude that somehow 'business as usual' should have prevailed [after 9/11]," said Horinko. "This report simply seems out of touch with the reality of what took place at the World Trade Center. Could things have been done better? Certainly. Were mistakes made? Without a doubt. But like other agencies of government in the wake of this event, EPA has reviewed its response, asked tough questions about its conduct and begun the process of change and improvement."

Calling it "troubling" that EPA rejects almost every conclusion in the IG's report, Shufro said, "There is still a significant amount of asbestos and heavy-metal contamination in Lower Manhattan which should be cleaned up to protect public health. EPA should be the lead agency in the process, but EPA officials make it clear that they will not reconsider those policies now."

According to NYCOSH, over half of the WTC rescue, clean-up and recovery workers have symptoms of respiratory illness, and "a share of those illnesses can be attributed to EPA's misleading statements about the safety of the air," said Shufro.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D, NY) said she seconded Nadler's request for a Department of Justice investigation, noting, "At the very least, the report acknowledges major deficiencies in the EPA's dissemination of information as well as the role of the White House in concealing potential air quality hazards."

Clinton also called on the EPA to provide New Yorkers with as much information as possible about the air quality in Lower Manhattan and requested public briefings be organized for the community members, residents, first responders, workers and volunteers exposed to the debris of the World Trade Center.

The EPA Inspector General's report, "EPA's Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement," can be downloaded at www.epa.gov/oig.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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