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House probes 9/11 air quality issue

Former EPA head blasts critics for "misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods."


The former head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday again denied misleading New York City residents and rescue workers about the safety of the air around Ground Zero after the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I am disappointed at the misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods that have characterized the public discussion about EPA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks," said Christine Todd Whitman during testimony before a House subcommittee. "It is utterly false . . . for EPA critics to assert that I or others at the agency set about to mislead New Yorkers and rescue workers."

Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, and other EPA critics contend that health problems now plaguing recovery workers at the World Trade Center and some New York City residents were due to reopening the Lower Manhattan area - under pressure from the White House - before the cleanup was fully completed.

They charged that repeated public statements by Whitman in the days and months after Sept. 11 that the air quality was safe were incorrect.

Whitman called the allegations false.

Nadler and other committee members repeatedly challenged Whitman and the EPA's post-9/11 statements during the hearing, with the exchanges becoming heated at times.

Even before the hearing began Monday afternoon, members of service unions from New York City demonstrated outside the Rayburn House Office Building with signs criticizing Whitman's statements and shouts for justice.

"We're looking for an honest revelation of the circumstances and the relationship between the EPA and the White House through the Council on Environmental Quality," said Democratic committee member Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.

Nadler said the hearing was to examine "whether the federal government . . . violated the 'substantive due process' rights of first responders, local residents, students and workers.

"Specifically, did the federal government itself, by responding inadequately or improperly to the environmental impacts, knowingly do harm to its citizens, and thereby violate their constitutional rights?" he asked. "And if so, which government actors were responsible?"

Questioned about test levels indicating high quantities of asbestos in the air, Whitman said none of the results posed a high risk to New York residents.

"Statements that EPA officials made after (Sept. 11) were based on the judgment of experienced environmental and health professionals at the EPA, OSHA, and the CDC who had analyzed the test data that 13 different agencies were collecting in Lower Manhattan," Whitman said.

"I do not recall any EPA scientists or experts who were responsible for reviewing this data ever advising me that the test data from Lower Manhattan showed that the air or water posed long-term health risks for the general public," she testified.

Whitman said the data revealed, and EPA reported, that the air where the Twin Towers collapsed was different than the air elsewhere in Manhattan.

Whitman was joined at the hearing by former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head John L. Henshaw. They and committee members argued over the health risks of asbestos found in certain samples.

Henshaw said asbestos found outside Wall Street buildings was the reason his agency and the EPA advised extensive street cleanings before reopening the financial district.

Several committee members said the air quality was still too high a risk despite street cleanings to allow the quick reopening of the area.

Whitman said she and other EPA officials warned recovery workers to wear protective gear and that the agency made all test results and press releases public on a special Web site. OSHA also monitored Ground Zero workers and also advised them to wear protective gear, Henshaw said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz questioned both Henshaw and Whitman about why their agencies did not enforce the wearing of respirators.

Henshaw said his agency did not have jurisdiction to do that. Whitman said there was no legal basis for enacting federal control of the site.

"I'm not sure if the public would've stood for my taking New York to court to take federal control of the site," she said.

Questioned about the influence of the White House and its Council on Environmental Quality on news releases issued by the EPA, Whitman said nothing was ever removed or added to them that was false or misleading.

Former members of the council and the Interior Department gave similar testimony.

"Let me be clear: the White House had a legitimate role to play in reviewing the EPA's public statements at this time of grave national emergency and coordinating the work of different agencies that responded to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers," said former council member Samuel Thornstrom.

"It is true that I made many suggestions to the EPA about ways to improve their press releases - and when the EPA agreed with those suggestions, they accepted them," he said. "In instances where we reviewed the EPA's draft press releases in ways that made them more reassuring, it was my belief that those changes accurately reflected the fact that they agreed with them.

"There was no meaningful dispute whatsoever between the EPA and the White House about how to characterize these risks," Thornstrom said.

Republican committee member Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona disputed charges by other members that the White House improperly influenced the EPA's releases. Franks called accusations that the White House, EPA and OSHA were deliberately aiming to hurt Americans "malicious" and "disturbing."

Other speakers, however, claimed the EPA knew the air quality was a threat to public health but did little to help the public and recovery workers handle it.

"The deaths on Sept. 11 were devastating, but our government could have and should have done much more to control the lingering harm," said Suzanne Mattei, former executive of the Sierra Club in New York City. "It should have warned people against exposure and reduced the duration of exposure through proper cleanup."

Mattei said calling the Sept. 11 attacks "unprecedented" was misleading because EPA scientists have studied the effect of building collapses and airplane crashes for decades and also knowledgeable about demolition.

Due to the known amount of hazardous contents of the towers, Mattei testified that the EPA should have issued immediate safety warnings to the area.

"Also, the EPA should have changed its safety assurances when new information on health risks emerged," she said. "It did not do so when tests showed the presence of toxic hazards, and it did not do so even when it became apparent that people were getting sick."

David Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, testified that the EPA and OSHA erred when they told the public that everything was fine.

"Within days of the attacks, the EPA declared Lower Manhattan's air 'safe to breathe' and OSHA announced that 'it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work,'" Newman said. "The EPA maintained until recently that 'short-term health effects dissipated for most once the fires were put out (and) there is little concern about any long-term health effects.'

"Unfortunately there is considerable evidence to the contrary," he said. "It is now well-established that a large and increasing number of people who were exposed to Sept. 11 contaminants, primarily rescue and recovery workers but also area workers and residents, are suffering serious and persistent adverse health outcomes."

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