It's worse than anyone thought.
Nearly three years after 9/11, the scandal keeps growing over the federal government's handling of the massive pollution released by the twin towers collapse.
With the Republicans coming to town, President Bush and Christie Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, should answer questions about their own roles at Ground Zero.
An investigation last year by the EPA's inspector general blasted the agency for claiming after the terrorist attacks that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.
EPA did not conduct sufficient testing during the first few days to back up those claims, the IG reported, and White House aides then rewrote agency press releases to minimize possible dangers.
Now a new report by the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest environmental organization, charges that the EPA covered up results of federal tests that pointed to more widespread health threats to rescue workers, downtown residents and office employees.
The Sierra Club report claims the Bush administration showed a "reckless disregard" for public health.
It's based on EPA records and several recent scientific studies about Ground Zero. Among the findings:
- The EPA claimed as late as April 2002 that it had found no traces of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a family of organic chemicals that can cause cancer. But in the weeks after the twin towers' collapse EPA's own scientists found significant levels of PAHs in the air several blocks north of Ground Zero. The agency did not disclose those results until two years later, when they were published in an obscure scientific journal.
- Eight weeks after 9/11, a survey by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that government employees at a federal building several blocks north of Ground Zero were battling an amazing array of physical ailments. NIOSH compared the workers with a control group of federal employees in Dallas.
It found those in lower Manhattan showed a much higher incidence of shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, severe headaches, rashes, and coughs.
- Childhood clinic visits for asthma jumped sharply at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in Chinatown in the year after 9/11; new cases jumped from 306 the previous year to 510.
While health officials routinely track such spikes, the Chinatown increase was not made public until this year, when an article appeared in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
An EPA statement called the report a "blatant attempt to use this tragedy for political gain."
Which brings us to Whitman, who garnered much attention this week when she called for Gov. Jim McGreevey of New Jersey to resign immediately for giving an alleged lover a government job.
So when will Whitman answer for her own role in the far more serious EPA coverup at Ground Zero?
As for Bush, the Sierra Club report is the first to connect some important dots to him as well.
The report points out that former White House anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, in his book "Against All Enemies," claims that on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush told several staff members, Clarke among them: "I want the economy back, open for business right away, banks, the stock market, everything tomorrow."
According to Clarke, when the President was told there was "physical damage to the Wall Street infrastructure," he responded: "As soon as we get the rescue operations done up there, shift everything to fixing that damage so we can reopen."
Clarke's recollection is echoed by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. In his tell-all book, O'Neill recalls that on Sept. 12, one of his aides told him, "The President wants to open the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with Bush's wanting to return Manhattan to normal as soon as possible. But what did Whitman, as this nation's top environmental official, tell the President about the health risks of sending thousands of people back to lower Manhattan so quickly?
Did she just follow orders when she gave New Yorkers the "all clear"? Did White House aides rewrite EPA press releases just to please the boss?
Only she and Bush can answer those questions. It's about time they do.
© 2004 Daily News, L.P.