White House Ordered EPA to Lie About 9/11 Pollution Danger
Published on Saturday, August 23, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
EPA Misled Public on 9/11 Pollution
White House ordered false assurances on air quality, report says
by Laurie Garrett
 

NEW YORK -- In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the White House instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to give the public misleading information, telling New Yorkers it was safe to breathe when reliable information on air quality was not available.

That finding is included in a report released Friday by the Office of the Inspector General of the EPA. It noted that some of the agency's news releases in the weeks after the attack were softened before being released to the public: Reassuring information was added, while cautionary information was deleted.

"When the EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," the report says. "Furthermore, the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced . . . the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."


BUSH ADMINISTRATION: NYC AIR 'SAFE TO BREATHE'
The Statue of Liberty stands in the foreground as New York is shrouded in smoke and pollution in New York image made from television, Tuesday Sept. 11, 2001. (ABC via APTN)
On the morning of Sept. 12, according to the report, the office of then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman issued a memo: "All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC (National Security Council in the White House) before they are released." The 165-page report compares excerpts from EPA draft statements to the final versions, including these:

The draft statement contained a warning from EPA scientists that homes and businesses near ground zero should be cleaned by professionals. Instead, the public was told to follow instructions from New York City officials.

Another draft statement was deleted; it raised concerns about "sensitive populations" such as asthma patients, the elderly and people with underlying respiratory diseases.

LEVELS OF ASBESTOS

A statement about discovery of asbestos at higher than safe levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was changed to state that "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."

Language in an EPA draft stating that asbestos levels in some areas were three times higher than national standards was changed to "slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material."

This sentence was added to a Sept. 16 news release: "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district." It replaced a statement that initial monitors failed to turn up dangerous samples.

A warning on the importance of safely handling ground zero cleanup, due to lead and asbestos exposure, was changed to say that some contaminants had been noted downtown but "the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling."

The report also notes examples when EPA officials claimed that conditions were safe when no scientific support was available.

New York's leaders responded with dismay.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, called for a Justice Department investigation. "That the White House instructed EPA officials to downplay the health impact of the World Trade Center contaminants due to 'competing considerations' at the expense of the health and lives of New York City residents is an abomination," he said in a news release.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview it was "understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist." But, he warned, "If the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, we'll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9/11 would have."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

EPA CHIEF

Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko, who sat in on EPA meetings with the White House during the attack's aftermath, said in an interview that the White House had played a coordinating role, assembling information from various federal agencies.

"It was a role someone had to play," Horinko said. "There was a potential for a Tower of Babel, and we needed to speak with one voice."

The National Security Council played the key role, filtering incoming data on ground zero air and water, Horinko said. "I think that the thinking was, these are experts in WMD (weapons of mass destruction), so they should have the coordinating role."

The focus at EPA, she continued, was on gathering data and making it public as rapidly as possible.

"Under unbelievably trying conditions, EPA did the best that it could," she said.

Copyright © 2003 Newsday

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