Congress Critical of EPA's Information on 9/11


OMB Watch
Published on 06/26/2007

Congress Critical of EPA's Information on 9/11

In recent House and Senate hearings, Congress called to task the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman for misrepresenting the health dangers World Trade Center (WTC) dust posed to the public in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Senate hearing, chaired by Sen. Hillary Clinton ☼ (D-NY), was held by the Committee on Environment and Public Works' Superfund and Environmental Health Subcommittee on June 20; the House hearing, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler ☼ (D-NY), was held June 25 by the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The hearings focused on two main areas: (1) EPA's public communications about outside air quality immediately after the towers' collapse; and (2) EPA's programs to sample and clean inside residential air. In both instances, EPA's information greatly impacted the public's ability to make responsible decisions for their self-protection.

The EPA, Whitman and other government officials continued to affirm that the assurances about air quality in the weeks after the attacks have been confirmed by scientific evidence. At the hearings, however, officials made a vital distinction between the air in and outside the WTC site and asserted that the safety assurances only pertained to asbestos outside of the pile. While this information may have been included in press releases, it was not verbally announced to the public. As Nina Lavin, a resident in the vicinity of the WTC, testified before the Senate, "What remains crystal clear is Christie Todd Whitman … assuring New York and the nation that 'the good news is the air is safe to breathe.'"

Experts have questioned whether or not EPA had scientific backing to tell the public that the air was safe. Whitman stands by her outdoor air samples showing relatively low concentrations of asbestos, but as Dave Newman of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health pointed out in the House hearing, asbestos was detected in 76 percent of the dust samples and ranged from 110 percent to 449 percent above the legal limit. Asbestos is just one chemical of concern among many carcinogens that were known to exist in the tower debris.

Whitman and others also assured Congress that workers understood the need to wear protective gear. However, the fact that a 2006 Mount Sinai Medical Report found 70 percent of WTC responders had "new or worsened respiratory symptoms as a result of their work on the WTC site, many with severe conditions," may demonstrate that EPA was not effective in spreading that message during the clean up.

EPA's voluntary programs for residential testing and cleaning tell a similar story. New York City's Department of Environmental Protection's notice to building owners included an EPA statement "that the potential presence of ACM [asbestos-containing material] in dust and debris is minimal." Such statements insinuated that a professional cleaning was most likely unnecessary and not urgent. Not surprisingly, only about 4,000 of the 20,000 eligible residents participated in the program.

A New York City Department of Health Study cited in EPA's Inspector General report found that "most residents did not follow the City's recommended cleaning practices." In a recent second program for testing and cleaning residential buildings, EPA convinced residents to believe their air was safe by using test results from the first program that showed asbestos risks as "very small." What was not explained, but was clarified in the hearings, was that eighty percent of these results were found after a professional cleaning.

John Stephenson, director of National Resources and Environment in the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified before the Senate committee and indicated EPA has not guaranteed the safety of New York's residents: "We think the data is quite inconclusive. We don't think EPA has done a comprehensive study on a single building, let alone [all of] lower Manhattan." The majority of the Senate and House subcommittee members present at the hearings agreed with Stephenson's assessment.

Though tough questions were asked and honest testimony given, the hearings ultimately became mired in a blame game that obfuscated the most fundamental reality of EPA communications with the public and WTC workers after 9/11: they didn't work. Given the intense interest of lawmakers, legislation to establish more clearly the EPA's responsibilities during a disaster, including information disclosure requirements, may be forthcoming.