Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

EPA misleads on air quality after 9/11 attacks

Air samples at Ground Zero showed asbestos levels between double and triple EPA’s danger limit, but were defined as only “slightly above” the limit


Days after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center towers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the air was safe to breathe, but that proved to be a dangerously optimistic assessment. Nearly two years later, EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that the EPA “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” as “air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern.” The OIG also discovered that the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) significantly revised EPA press releases “to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.” Samples showed asbestos levels between double and triple EPA’s danger limit, but CEQ edits defined the results as “slightly above” the limit.

EPA was instructed to clear all statements to the media through the National Security Council, giving National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s office final approval. While the EPA pointed to its recommendations that workers and volunteers on site take precautions such as using respirators, OIG said “EPA’s basic overriding message was that the public did not need to be concerned about airborne contaminants.” Former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman maintains that her assurances referred to lower Manhattan in general and not the Ground Zero site. Yet, first responders like Vinny Forras told CBS, “We were being told ‘Don’t worry about it.’” Forras is one of the nearly seven out of 10 World Trade Center responders who reported new or worsened lung problems, according to a 2006 study by Mount Sinai Hospital.

Follow Up:
Representative Jerrold Nadler and Senator Hillary Clinton, Democrats of New York, have led congressional inquiries of the EPA. “We never got the information we needed,” Clinton said. “We are left with a federal agency that is completely unprepared if this kind of air quality disaster were to happen again.” Two EPA indoor air cleanups were criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In response to a request for comment, an EPA spokeswoman noted that the agency wrote to senators in September 2008 saying that it “is disappointed that the final GAO report continues to foster a misleading impression” about the EPA work. A Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Whitman cannot be held personally liable for any of her statements of reassurance about Ground Zero air quality, overruling a District Court judge who in 2006 called Whitman’s actions “shocking.” Meanwhile, the bipartisan 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which called for research as well as medical monitoring and treatment for those exposed to Ground Zero toxins, failed to move through the House in 2008. Legislation signed by New York Governor George Pataki in 2006 and expanded in 2008 by Governor David Paterson allows uniformed municipal workers with health problems caused by 9/11 to exit their jobs with three-quarters disability or file for it if they have already left.

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