An increasing number of high-ranking Democrats in Congress want EPA to answer questions about allegations political operatives in the White House inappropriately pressured the agency to reassure those living and working near Ground Zero they faced few significant environmental hazards after the collapse of the WTC. So far, the administration has resisted releasing the information, and this refusal is one factor that is delaying the confirmation of a new EPA administrator. EPA has not yet indicated how it will respond to the information requests.
In an Oct. 20 letter to EPA's acting administrator, Marianne Horinko, the ranking Democrats on four different House committees write, "We remain very troubled by the recent reports raising questions about EPA's apparent acquiescence in downplaying concerns about environmental and health risks at and near Ground Zero."
What has spurred the broadening interest among Democrats is the recent report by the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG), which concluded the agency reassured people that the air was safe to breathe when, in fact, it didn't have enough evidence to make that call so quickly.
After the OIG report, which also includes documents about "screaming matches" between the White House and EPA over how to communicate to the public about potential health risks in the WTC dust, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said that until EPA answers her questions concerning the response to the 9/11 attacks, she would block the confirmation of President Bush's choice to head the EPA, Gov. Mike Leavitt, R-Utah.
The Democrats want, among other things, all physical and electronic records in EPA's possession related to communication between the White House and EPA from Sept. 11, 2001 until the present regarding the response to the terrorist attacks at the WTC and the Pentagon. The request specifies such items as:
- Results and analyses of environmental monitoring;
- Communication of hazardous substance risks to residents and workers;
- Indoor sampling and reoccupation issues of residents, workers and people returning to schools following the collapse of the WTC;
- Decisions about the selection and use of respiratory protection for workers and residents.
While the primary focus of congressional inquiry thus far appears to concern environmental information, questions remain about OSHA's role in protecting workers at Ground Zero in New York and at the Pentagon crash site in Arlington, Va.
While firefighters without proper respiratory protection who volunteered at Ground Zero weren't taken off the site, "at the Pentagon, volunteers without sufficient respiratory protection were thrown off the site," according to information in a recent "lessons learned" report on the terrorist attacks produced by the National Environmental Health Association.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district includes Ground Zero, has long been pressing for the release of information concerning the federal government's response to the attacks.
The demand for information has now spread to include the following ranking Democratic House members: John Dingell, Committee on Energy and Commerce; Henry Waxman, Committee on Government Reform; John Conyers, Committee on the Judiciary; George Miller, Committee on Education and the Workforce. In a separate Oct. 14 letter to Horinko, Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections joined Nadler and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. in asking for the same information.
The House Democrats have all filed official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with EPA, but, "given the urgency of the situation and the importance of the issue to our constituents," they also appealed to Horinko to expedite the release of the documents and not to make the members "go through the full FOIA process." Complying with a formal FOIA request could take months and might also limit the material provided.
The House Democrats are forced to use the FOIA process because they have failed to convince their Republican colleagues, who control both houses of Congress, to hold hearings or press the administration for answers on the allegations that political considerations from the White House influenced EPA's response to the terrorist attacks.