Response to Katrina is First Test of National Response Plan

The federal agencies charged with protecting rescue workers and the public against toxic hazards in national emergencies may find their hands tied under the new National Response Plan, according to a report issued by the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club released an update of "Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero," its 2004 report on the federal administration's failure to protect the public and rescue workers against toxic pollution from the Sept. 11th attack on the World Trade Center. The new report urges that the government missteps at Ground Zero may be repeated in future disasters. This comes as the National Response Plan examined in the report is being tested for the first time in the areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

"Should Americans feel assured that our federal government will do a better job of protecting health and safety in any future disaster? The answer appears to be no," said Suzanne Mattei, author of the report and Sierra Club's New York City Executive. "Health and safety agencies will not be in the drivers' seat."

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security, all actions and communications in national disasters are centralized and governed by Homeland Security policies. The report dissects how these policies may lead to a repetition of missteps that occurred at Ground Zero. It urges Congress to hold hearings to investigate these issues.

"Residents and workers still await a proper toxic cleanup and medical response to the World Trade Center attack. That weak track record and the troubling new federal policies described in this report do not bode well for the future. Americans should assume that in any future national disaster, human health and safety may not be protected," said Mattei.

Several new developments over the past year lead to this conclusion:

  • People clearly needed better protection against the pollution caused by the 9/11 attack; new data confirms that many people still suffer respiratory health effects from exposure to Ground Zero pollution.
  • Under the new National Response Plan (currently being employed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have the final word on what should be done to protect the safety of rescue and recovery workers.
  • Public health may be compromised because the Department of Homeland Security is proposing to use an "optimization" approach, which will consider "societal values and needs" such as economic impacts, in setting toxic cleanup goals in national emergencies.
  • The federal government's new emergency planning documents fail to declare that it will evaluate toxic hazards as a whole &endash; and not issue broad assurances of safety before test results justify them, as occurred at Ground Zero under pressure from the White House. The documents also fail to adopt a precautionary approach to protecting public health when the full risks of pollution are not yet known.
  • The federal government has failed to investigate how many children and adults are sick today from 9/11 pollution exposure, including illness among residents, small business owners, area employees and many others.

"We learned the hard way in New York about what can happen when a disaster unleashes contamination into a community, and I am continuing to press for testing and cleanup of World Trade Center fallout," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). "This report also raises serious questions about whether the lessons learned in New York are being applied now. We need answers to these and other tough questions about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and that's why I have called for the establishment of the Katrina Commission."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) noted he witnessed first-hand "what happens when the federal government fails to protect public health after disaster strikes. The long-term impact on human health – and public confidence in government – is devastating."

He called the report from Sierra Club "a wake-up call," adding, "I confess that I am concerned for the rescue workers and residents facing the aftermath of the Katrina Hurricane. We need a full investigation of what happened at Ground Zero and what our government plans to do in all future emergencies."

Pointing out that thousands of workers and residents who have been exposed to 9/11-related contamination are now sick, Joel Shufro, executive director, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, insists that many of them might never have been exposed if federal officials had not downplayed the hazard in Lower Manhattan and the importance of wearing appropriate protective equipment at all times.

"Rescue and recovery workers in the Gulf Coast must not be subjected to the same lack of attention to their potential exposures," he added. "Until the post-Katrina air (and the water rescuers are wading in) is proven safe, it should be regarded as hazardous, so rescuers and others exposed should receive necessary training and wear appropriate respiratory protection and skin protection, if it is available. If either the training or the gear is not available, emergency officials should make a very high priority of obtaining it, while providing medical surveillance for workers engaged in the rescue and recovery."

The inevitable conclusion, said Sierra Club's Mattei, is that Americans cannot count on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Homeland Security, EPA or OSHA to protect public health properly in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or national disaster. "The public needs a Congressional investigation of what happened at Ground Zero and what will happen in future disasters," she said.

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