Senators: Why Did the White House Supress Information about WTC Health Hazards?

Aug. 27, 2003
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D, NY) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D, CT) have written to President George W. Bush to ask why his administration suppressed information about potential air quality hazards around Ground Zero. The senators also asked the president to take immediate action to ensure that New York's air quality is as safe as promised.

According to a report released Aug. 22 by the Inspector General (IG) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), despite evidence that deadly contaminants were contained in the WTC debris, including asbestos, lead, glass fibers and concrete, the EPA did not accurately convey information about the potential health hazards these substances posed. According to the report, the White House influenced the final message in the EPA's air quality statements. (See "Congressman Calls for Investigation of EPA's 'Neglect and Lies' Following 9/11.")

In her report, Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley wrote that "based on the documentation we reviewed and our discussions with numerous environmental experts, both within and outside of EPA, we do not agree that the agency's statement on Sept. 18, 2001 that the air was safe to breathe reflected the agency's best professional advice. In contrast, based on the circumstances outlined in Chapter 2 of the report, it appeared that EPA's best professional advice was overruled when relaying information to the public in the weeks immediately following the disaster."

"I am deeply concerned with the report findings," Clinton said. "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."

Lieberman took it a step further: "The Inspector General's report is scandalous," he said. "When parents were sending their kids back to school and workers were toiling away at Ground Zero, the White House persuaded the EPA to deliver a whitewashed version of the truth about air quality. Senator Clinton and I want to know what happened, what possible excuse there could be for misleading the public about the air they breathe and how they will ensure the Ground Zero air is clean today."

As members of the Senate Clean Air, Wetlands and Climate Change Subcommittee the full committee that is charged with overseeing EPA Lieberman and Clinton convened a field hearing in New York City on Feb. 11, 2002, to examine issues of air quality after the September 11 attacks.

In their letter to Bush today, Clinton and Lieberman wrote, "We are outraged by the apparently conscious decision by your White House to provide more reassuring advice to the public than was merited by the facts. We therefore request, in the name of public health, that you both take immediate action to ensure that New York's air quality is as safe as promised and provide an expeditious and thorough response to our inquiries in this letter."

The senators asked for a thorough accounting of what transpired following 9/11, and called upon the president to implement steps recommended in the report to ensure that Ground Zero air quality is safe. Those steps include:

  • The identification of the White House officials, referred to in the IG's report, that exercised editorial control over EPA's press releases;
  • The rationale for all editorial choices made by those White House officials, including but not limited to the editorial changes referenced in the IG's report; and
  • All communication between the White House and EPA regarding air quality in downtown New York City, including but not limited to all communication between those offices concerning the editorial changes made to EPA press releases.

Clinton and Lieberman also asked the president to immediately undertake efforts to assure the New York City public that the air quality surrounding Ground Zero is as safe as was advertised in September 2001. They called upon Bush to implement the following steps outlined by Tinsley in her proposal:

  • Implement a post-cleaning testing program to ensure that the indoor cleanup program has reduced residents' risk of exposure,
  • Implement a post-cleaning verification program to ensure that residences cleaned by the program have not been re-contaminated, and
  • Work with FEMA and OSHA to assess whether ongoing residential testing and cleaning program should be expanded to address potential contamination in workspaces in Lower Manhattan, or whether other measures need to be taken to ensure that workspaces are not contaminated with WTC dust.

The senators requested a response from the White House by Sept. 5.

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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