Monday, September 10, 2007

The EPA, 9/11, and the Bush Administration

Two years ago, I was invited, on short notice, to join a speaking tour to talk about the environmental damage that occurred in the wake of 9/11. As I wallowed in EPA reports, Sierra Club summaries, and hundreds of news articles, the story became appalling.

The EPA told people to go back to work, that the air was "safe to breathe." But the EPA's Inspector General, in a report on the agency's performance regarding the WTC collapse, called out something disturbing:

EPA's early public statements following the collapse of the WTC towers reassured the public regarding the safety of the air outside the Ground Zero area. However, when EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was "safe" to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement. At that time, air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern, including particulate matter and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Furthermore, The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.
Read that again. The White House Council on Environmental Quality got the EPA to "delete cautionary" statements and to "add reassuring statements" about air quality. The motive, of course, is obvious. As the IG report noted:

Competing considerations, such as national security concerns and the desire to reopen Wall Street, also played a role in EPA's air quality statements.
How intense was the pressure? According to this New York Times report, there were "screaming phone calls" between the two bodies:
The documents that formed the basis for the report -- summaries of interviews with agency officials, internal agency documents and e-mail correspondence between White House and agency officials shortly after Sept. 11 -- show that there were ''screaming telephone calls'' about the news releases between Tina Kreisher, then an associate administrator, and Sam Thernstrom, then the White House council's communications director. The E.P.A.'s chief of staff, Eileen McGinnis, had to ask the head of the White House council, James L. Connaughton, to urge his staff to ''lighten up,'' according to interviews with the inspector general's office. Ms. Kreisher, who now works as a speechwriter at the Department of the Interior, is quoted as saying she ''felt extreme pressure'' from Mr. Thernstrom.
What was the EPA not telling the public? The World Trade Center buildings, like office buildings all over the planet, contained computers, smoke detectors, carpets, fluorescent lighting, and a variety of construction materials. Computers contain lead and other heavy metals. Smoke detectors contain radioactive substances. Fluorescent lighting contains mercury. Nylon carpets and insulation materials release dioxins when burnt. Crushed glass and fiberglass were created when the building fell. And of course, the buildings were constructed with asbestos. PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) were present as well.

So how much of this did the EPA know, and how quickly? According to the IG report, a a lot, and soon after:

Information and the analyses of available data did not fully support the statement made in the September 18, 2001, release, which quoted the EPA Administrator as saying the air was "safe" to breathe. Four factors in particular posed limitations on the conclusions that could be made at that time about air quality:

  • A lack of data results for many pollutants,

  • An absence of health benchmarks for asbestos and other pollutants,

  • Imprecise optical asbestos sampling methodologies, and

  • Over 25 percent of the bulk dust samples collected before September 18
showed the presence of asbestos above the 1 percent benchmark. EPA did not have monitoring data to support reassurances made in press releases up to September 18 because it lacked monitoring data for several contaminants, particularly PCBs, particulate matter, dioxin, and PAHs.

So what has been the result of this government underperformance? Have people come down with serious illnesses? Last year, MSNBC reported:

Nearly 70 percent of recovery workers who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center have suffered lung problems, and high rates of lung "abnormalities" continue, a new health study released Tuesday shows.

Doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center, which conducted the study, said the results prove that working in the toxic gray dust at ground zero made many people sick, and some will likely suffer the effects for the rest of their lives.

"There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center. Our patients are sick," said Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the group that investigated the long-term effects from exposure to dust at the site.

What did New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a republican who is still considering for running for president as an independent, say about the study?

"I haven't seen the Mount Sinai study, but I don't believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular event"....
In addition, when Governor George Pataki signed legislation last year expanding benefits to rescue workers who had been at Ground Zero, Bloomberg objected, saying the benefits were unfunded and would therefore cost the city millions.

Has the EPA revised its methods for data collection so as to better warn people in the future? Strangely, the answer is no. As the Sierra Club noted in their 2006 report on Ground Zero:

One of the most disturbing developments during the WTC disaster response was the fact that private tests repeatedly found higher levels of hazards than government tests. As explained in Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero, EPA used an older "Polarized Light Microscopy" (PLM) method rather than the more modern Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) method to analyze dust samples for asbestos fibers. TEM equipment is much better at identifying the thinner, as well as shorter, asbestos fibers that occurred in Ground Zero dust. In doing so, EPA failed to follow its own best practices, as it touted in its response to the asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, even though EPA was actually dealing with the same asbestos, because the World Trade Center was insulated with asbestos that came from the mines in Libby.

The New York Environmental Law & Justice Project took outdoor WTC dust samples from several sites in lower Manhattan a few days after the attack. The results, based on a TEM analysis, generally showed higher levels of asbestos than EPA had been reporting. The New York Daily News published the results on September 28, 2001, yet EPA failed to change its testing protocols. Even when the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force, which included Representative Jerrold Nadler, released test results in an October 12, 2001 report finding indoor asbestos dust at a level 64 times the typical urban indoor level in a heavily exposed apartment,23 EPA did not change its testing protocols. This meant that it continued to understate the risk from asbestos in WTC dust.

The Sierra Club also noted that during Katrina, the EPA had clearly failed to learn this lesson:

A similar phenomenon of private tests finding contamination not disclosed by EPA has occurred in the Katrina disaster. While comparable EPA and private data usually have been consistent, private tests have highlighted shortfalls in the location and parameters of EPA testing. In early October 2005, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and others released the results of sediment sampling supervised by chemist Dr. Wilma Subra, which found elevated levels of arsenic and a toxic petroleum constituent, benzo(a)pyrene. Dr. Subra warned, "Babies shouldn't go in, pregnant women shouldn't go in, elderly shouldn't go in." A round of tests by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found benzo(a)pyrene at 33 times higher than EPA residential standard at a school in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmett. EPA's spokesman would not comment on that testing, but an EPA scientist said that the eight soil samples that EPA had taken at another Chalmett school "came back clean." The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also did sediment testing in the New Orleans area. In late 2005, the Sierra Club released test data from Dr. Subra on high levels of dioxin and chromium in sediment samples near the DuPont plant in DeLisle, Mississippi. Importantly, Dr. Subra's testing also found that the dry sludge contained harmful bacteria that were still viable, raising concerns about the health risks of dust inhalation. EPA had not released any test results for bacteria in dry sludge. In mid-December 2005, Texas Tech University scientists released sediment test results from New Orleans that found lead, arsenic and seven toxic semivolatile organic compounds that exceeded EPA Region 6 guidelines. Because the contamination problems appeared to have been widely but sporadically distributed, the head researcher urged government to conduct thousands more sediment tests before issuing any "all-clear" on long-term health risks. In April 2006, EPA finally declared that 14 neighborhoods in the New Orleans area had dangerous lead levels and a residential area near the old Agriculture Street landfill had high levels of benzo(a)pyrene. In late 2006, university researchers and an NRDC expert published test results finding that the mean outdoor airborne mold spore concentration in flooded areas in Fall 2005 had been roughly double the level in non-flooded areas, and the mean indoor mold spore concentration in flooded areas had been five times higher than the outdoor concentration. EPA apparently did not report mold test results. Oddly, while the federal government sometimes did not appear to welcome testing or analysis by independent scientists and groups, it listed contact information for the Murphy Oil Corporation, Bass Enterprises, the Shell Oil Company, Chevron and Dynergy - companies that reported spills of oil from the disaster - in a news release, describing them as "our industry partners."

So the last question becomes one about us. What are we going to do about this? The EPA, under the Bush administration, has failed us seriously, not once, but twice, proving they did not learn from their past mistakes.

We must call for greater accountability. We must effect a dramatic regime change here at home next year. But we must also do our part. We must get more involved, on a personal level, in holding our officials' feet to the fire when they do not act in our best interests.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be such a fool: The 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated this and authoritatively refuted the EPA IG's false claims of "improper" White House influence. And the EPA staffer who supposedly told the EPA IG that she was pressured by the White House has specifically denied there was any improper pressure--did you see her June 2007 testimony? Pretty shallow grasp of history you've got there, "Real" History lady! This is nothing more than the same shallow propaganda that you allegedly abhor.

Let's see if you have the courage to post this comment and let your readers (are there any?) hear a different point of view!

2:41 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

The irony of refuting my documentation with your anonymous accusation is not lost. But let's assume for the moment that's true.

Would you have us believe that there was no pressure on the woman (I assume you mean Christina Todd Whitman, a known partisan hack who headed the EPA at the time) to back up the White House's version? Talk about dumb.

Your point of view is wildly uninformed, I'm sorry to see.

3:32 PM  

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