Did EPA Mislead Public After 9/11?

Environmental Protection Agency EPA symbol air quality CBS/AP

An investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general has found that White House officials instructed the agency to be less alarming and more reassuring to the public in the first few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, The New York Times reports in its Saturday editions.

The investigation specifically cites official statements about air quality after the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses" to make a "blanket statement" when it announced seven days after the attack that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe, the Times quotes the report as saying.

"Competing considerations, such as national security concerns and the desire to reopen Wall Street, also played a role in E.P.A.'s air quality statements," the report, which has not yet been made public, said.

In an evaluation of the agency's overall response to the attack on the World Trade Center, one chapter of the report focuses on the role of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in helping to shape the agency's communication after the attack, the Times says.

"As a result of the White House C.E.Q.'s influence, guidance for cleaning indoor spaces and information about the potential health effects from W.T.C. debris were not included in the E.P.A's issued press releases," said the report, which the Times notes was made available by people who said it was too harsh. "In addition, based on C.E.Q.'s influence, reassuring information was added to at least one press release and cautionary information was deleted from E.P.A.'s draft version of that press release."

The inspector general is an investigator within the agency who is intended to be impartial and who audits and evaluates its programs, sometimes resulting in political tensions. The Times points out that officials from the agency and from the White House criticized the report, saying investigators misunderstood the complexity of the situation after the terror attack.

The report bases its conclusions on changes made in two news releases and interviews with agency officials about information that was withheld, the Times states.

According to the Times, researchers have found no significant harm to those who breathed the air around ground zero, which contained increased levels of benzene, lead, mercury, PCB's, asbestos and fiberglass, though one preliminary study published this week found a slight but significant increase in the percentage of small infants born to pregnant women who were at or near the site around the time of the attack.

The report has irritated agency officials, including Marianne Lamont Horinko, the acting administrator, who said the inspector general's office did not understand how serious a crisis the attack on the trade center presented. "It's almost like an academic look at an average emergency, and 9/11 wasn't academic or average," Horinko told the Times.

The E.P.A. has been criticized before for the statements it made about air quality after the attack. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on post-Sept. 11 air quality in February, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, contended that the agency had misled the public by declaring that the air around the trade center was safe.

Acccording to the Times, the report notes that the agency's official position was that the levels of asbestos in outdoor air were safe for healthy adults, but that it lacked evidence about the potential health effects of indoor air and the risks of other contaminants or the effects on more vulnerable New Yorkers, including children and the elderly.

The report notes that the agency's news releases did not mention these caveats and that "for the general public, E.P.A.'s overriding message was that there was no significant threat to human health."

The report says an associate administrator considered adding to a news release information on the risks of exposure to fine dust particles for the more vulnerable segments of the population. But an official from the Council on Environmental Quality "discouraged her from doing so," the report says, arguing that information about health effects should not be in E.P.A. news releases. The report also notes that an official from the White House council asked that a statement encouraging those who lived around ground zero to hire professional cleaners was deleted from a release, the Times says.

The report compares two news releases with their draft versions and concludes, "Every change that was suggested by the C.E.Q. contact was made."

The Times' account of the report says that the title for the original version of one news release was, "E.P.A. Initiating Emergency Response Activities, Testing Terrorized Sites For Environmental Hazards." In the final version, the second clause was changed to read, "Reassures Public About Environmental Hazards." In the same release, a section that said, "Even at low levels, E.P.A considers asbestos hazardous in this situation" was deleted and replaced with a section that read, in part, "Short-term, low-level exposure of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects."

Ms. Horinko said the report made too much of the White House role. "What it ignores is that C.E.Q. had an appropriate role to play because we had data coming from everywhere," she said to the Times. "There needed to be an important coordinating role."

James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, agreed. "The right word here is 'collaborate,'" he said to the Times. "We had to do some very dramatic and significant coordination."

Ms. Horinko told the Times that the chapter focused too narrowly on press releases rather than on the entire range of public communication, including the monitoring data that was made public. Given the information that E.P.A. had available, "What we wanted to do was be reassuring to the public at that time," Ms. Horinko said.
  • Joel Arak

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