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Ground Zero Health Report -- Correspondent Tracy Smith Responds To Criticism

(AP (file))
Steven Spruiell, the National Review's media blogger, was troubled with a story aired on last Friday's "Early Show" about the health problems afflicting rescue workers who were at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11. Spruiell questions the credibility of EPA scientist and "whistleblower" Cate Jenkins, whom correspondent Tracy Smith interviewed for the story. Spruiell writes:
Dr. Jenkins is leveling some serious allegations. She's not accusing the EPA of making a mistake, or of failing to make the danger clear. She's accusing top EPA officials of intentionally lying about the safety of the air in the days following 9/11. A pretty big scoop for CBS News.

If you are familiar with the recent history of CBS News, however, it will not come as a surprise to you that The Early Show forgot to investigate the credibility of its source. If it had, it probably would have found plenty of EPA employees willing to talk about Dr. Jenkins's bizarre and contentious history at the agency.

Spruiell provides part of the judgment of a 1988 case in which Jenkins accused the EPA of unfairly punishing her for "whistleblowing activities." The case was decided in the EPA's favor. From that decision:
Claimant's credibility is the key issue in this case, both because there is frequent conflict between her version of events and that of other witnesses and because her perception of events is the principal component in her belief that she has been discriminated against for her protected activities. Accordingly, much of this part of the decision will address claimant's credibility.

Getting right to the point, Cate Jenkins is the most disingenuous, evasive, and self- serving witness I have ever observed. She is an intense woman who believes that any means are acceptable if, in her view, the ends are desirable, including lying (even under oath), searching through co-workers' personal effects, and leaking confidential information. She further believes that any person, rule, or law which stands in her way can be ignored. She has acted and continues to act as if she believes she is the only person at EPA who is concerned with the public interest and everyone else is selling out to the industries regulated by EPA. Accordingly, she irrationally assumes that every criticism of her job performance, no matter how obviously valid, is part of a plan to impede her efforts to protect the public and the environment.

Read all of Spruiell's post here. You can watch Smith's piece by clicking on the picture below or read the Web version here. I asked Smith about Sprueill's assertions and she responded with the following:
The producer of the story and I were aware of the credibility issue and the judge's opinion of Cate Jenkins from that 1988 case alleging retaliatory discrimination. However, there is another, separate 1992 case, also alleging retaliatory discrimination by the EPA against Jenkins, which was decided in her favor. The judge in that 1992 case found the EPA's testimony to be not credible, and in 1994 the Secretary of Labor upheld that judge's findings. We could have included discussion of the credibility issue in our report, but frankly I think it would have been unenlightening given the conflicting decisions on credibility.
More Smith, from an e-mail:
I would also point out that a Washington Post article from 2003 addressed the credibility issue, and that 1988 case specifically, but still found Dr. Jenkins' opinion worthy of inclusion in the story. And a recent New York Times article also quoted Dr. Jenkins as a source on the subject of the EPA actions in relation to 9/11. … I should also mention that we sought the EPA's response to Jenkins' allegations. The EPA's response addressed the merits of Jenkins' scientific opinion . It stated that she had not participated in the agency's work on the World Trade Center, and stated that she was not an agency expert on its response to 9/11. We made sure to include these points in our report.
In her response, Smith included copies of the 1992 case against the EPA decided in Jenkins' favor (dealing with her work on the effects of Agent Orange) as well as the 1994 finding by then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in which he upheld that case, finding:
Beyond the bare statutory violations, the record in this case suggests that on more than one occasion EPA punished whistleblowers by removing them from assignments and transferring them to undesirable positions, and accordingly that EPA routinely may have dealt with its whistleblowers in this manner. The record also suggests that EPA carefully scrutinized Dr. Jenkins' actions in an attempt to find a legitimate basis for its retaliation.
Smith also included the stories she referenced from New York Times (mostly blocked behind TimesSelect) and the Washington Post (not online). The Post article, published September 10, 2003, leads with this:
An Environmental Protection Agency hazardous-waste expert charged in a memorandum released yesterday that her agency repeatedly mishandled the cleanup of an apartment building near the site of the World Trade Center in New York and then made a false scientific claim in arguing against conducting a third cleanup.

Cate Jenkins, a 24-year EPA veteran who has butted heads with the agency's leadership before, said that the EPA made a "false claim" that the asbestos found by independent experts retained by the building's residents had been there before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "EPA made no attempt to determine the accessibility of the areas tested by residents before dismissing them as being from previously existing asbestos," she said in her memo.

Jenkins memo was publicly released by Congressman Jerold Nadler (D-NY) and The Post dealt with her past clashes with the EPA in its final paragraph, noting:
Jenkins has openly challenged the EPA before and has been criticized herself. In a regulatory case in 1998, a Department of Labor administrative judge noted in an opinion that Jenkins was "extremely intelligent" and capable but had been "disingenuous, evasive and self-serving" in her testimony. Nadler said of Jenkins: "[W]hatever her personal characteristics, she knows her science."
The New York Times story referred to Jenkins as a scientist who "has been sharply critical of the agency in the past" and "and has been in conflict with the agency for years over her whistle-blowing activities."

Whew, got all that? Clearly Jenkins is a controversial figure, but one whose work and assertions have been a part of the conversation on this issue in the past. More information is always better but I'm not convinced re-hashing competing legal judgments would have brought a better understanding to this story. A short line about past clashes with the agency, along the lines of what The Times used, might have helped but would not have done anything to clarify the issue at hand. But Jenkins' opinion was presented as that – an opinion by an EPA scientist who did not work directly on this issue. Smith reported that Jenkins had studied the research on this topic and come to a conclusion – one that has been largely publicly reported before. To me, this was the key part of the piece:

Smith: Did they lie?

Jenkins: Yes, they did.

Smith: Dr. Cate Jenkins is an EPA scientist who spoke exclusively with CBS. While she didn't personally conduct the research at ground zero, it's her opinion that the EPA knew the dust there had asbestos and pH levels that were dangerously high.

Jenkins: This dust was highly caustic, in some cases as caustic an alkaline as Drano.

Smith: Did the EPA say anything about the alkalinity of this dust?

Jenkins: Nothing whatsoever.

Smith: Jenkins wrote memos accusing the EPA of lying. In response to our questions, the EPA issued a statement, saying "Top EPA scientists spent thousands of hours collecting, reviewing and analyzing samples from ground zero. Dr. Jenkins has not participated in any aspect of EPA's work on the World Trade Center and is not an agency expert on EPA's response to the September 11th terrorist attacks."

What seems less controversial is mounting evidence that many of those who worked at Ground Zero in the days, weeks and months following 9/11 are now suffering from respiratory illnesses. Then-EPA Secretary Christie Todd Whitman told Katie Couric on last night's "60 Minutes" that Ground Zero workers were consistently told to wear protective equipment like respirators and that assurances of safe air were about the area surrounding the attack site, not "the pile" itself. Firefighter Vinny Forras, who was also interviewed in the Smith piece, says they were told to wear breathing devices but that they were difficult to work in and that they were also told the air was safe. What led to all these contradictions may remain fuzzy, but isn't at least asking the questions something journalism should be about?
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