Anger about EPA grows

The government's treatment of people who inhaled post-Sept. 11 dust was, at best, negligent, and at worst, deceitful and inhumane, said faith-based and community-based disaster response leaders.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 11, 2003

"The government allowed this to happen."

—Florence Coppola

The government's treatment of people who inhaled post-Sept. 11 dust was, at best, negligent, and at worst, deceitful and inhumane, said faith-based and community-based disaster response leaders. And two years later, it's not over.

Last month an Inspector General's (IG) report concluded that the Bush Administration "convinced the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" in the information the agency released to the public immediately following the attacks and for months afterward regarding air quality at Ground Zero.

The IG found that the EPA did not have the proper information to assure residents that the air was safe to breathe, and that the standards the agency set for asbestos levels were so low they were inconsistent with EPA's own regulations.

But Florence Coppola got furious long before this report was released. For two years, she has watched residents, workers and volunteers suffer the harmful effects of toxic dust and then watched them get completely ignored.

"It really does make me angry," said Coppola, who helps lead the United Church of Christ's (UCC) national disaster ministries network. "Right after Sept. 11, government officials at all levels were so eager to reopen Wall Street and bring tourists back and return to normal," she said.

"They allowed people to return to apartments that had been cleaned with nothing but wet paper towels and HEPA [High Efficiency Particulate Air] filters. Children returned to schools."

More than 2,000 buildings in lower Manhattan were exposed to the wave of debris and dust, and many were filled with residents and office workers within days after the attacks. Coppola and a growing number of other people believe the federal government overlooked a substantial threat that could ultimately harm more people than the terrorist attacks.

"The government allowed this to happen," she said. "And this points out the need for the faith-based community to continue to be involved in advocacy."

It's advocacy by UCC leaders and other vocal community groups that called the EPA's dismissive inaction into question in the first place, explained Susan O'Brien, assistant director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit that represents hundreds of workers in New York City. UCC has provided financial support for NYCOSH programs that have offered, among other services, mobile medical units for workers and free respiratory protection.

For months, UCC and NYCOSH joined other community groups in putting the pressure on the EPA. When the IG report came out, O'Brien said it cemented something she'd known all along: that the work they were doing was changing people's lives, and possibly even saving lives in the long run.

"If anybody ever had any question about whether this funding was going for a useful purpose, here's your answer," said O'Brien, referring to the IG report.

For months after the attacks, EPA officials insisted that the dust contained few contaminants and posed little health risk to anyone but those caught in the initial plume from the towers' collapse.

In a public statement in April 2002, Christine Todd Whitman, then the Bush administration's EPA chief, said, "Everything we've tested for, which includes asbestos, lead, and volatile organic compounds, have been below any level of concern for the general public health."

But tests by private companies, the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, and doctors working with the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program began to find different results. Their tests showed astronomical levels of asbestos and a long list of toxic ingredients that pose a significant risk of cancer, birth defects, nerve damage and other ominous health problems.

The cloud of pulverized debris was a virtual soup of toxic substances: asbestos, PCBs, mercury, pulverized concrete and dioxin, among others.

UCC, NYCOSH and other groups began pressuring the EPA for answers.

In June 2002 nine months after the attacks the EPA opened phone help lines for the first time to residents wanting testing and cleaning in their apartments.

"The cleanup that the EPA initially agreed to do came about because of the pressure put on them by the community organizations," said O'Brien.

Too bad it ultimately was a "half-baked effort," she added.

The EPA launched an effort to clean 6,000 residences. But the program was voluntary, outreach was minimal, and the EPA addressed dust issues in less than 20 percent of the apartments in lower Manhattan. This wave of testing and cleaning did nothing to ensure that thousands of offices, stores, restaurants and other business spaces in the district were safe.

Now that the IG is at last addressing EPA's missteps, O'Brien said UCC and other faith-based groups should believe in the power of their mission: to defend vulnerable people.

The IG report has captured national headlines and attention on Capitol Hill. This month, Sen. Hillary Clinton vowed to block the appointment of President Bush's new environmental chief until the White House explains why it watered down the EPA's report about hazardous air quality at Ground Zero.

And the wave of visibility will only grow, said O'Brien. "I see this as a sort of spectacular example of community advocacy."

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