When a Government Won't Own Up

Rescue and cleanup workers, who put their lives on the line in our nation's darkest hour, weren't given information about environmental risks and are now paying the price with financial hardship, illness, and even death.

Hundreds of thousands of people living on the Gulf Coast survived a horrific natural disaster and a failed government response, only to be placed in trailers that FEMA knew were at risk for dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

We are witnessing the cumulative impact of the Bush ideology: what columnist Paul Krugman called a "hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good."

Last month, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil rights, and Civil Liberties, chaired by Representative Jerrold Nadler AC/EoeA 1/4, held a hearing entitled "the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Response to Air Quality Issues Arising from the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001: Were There Substantive Due Process Violations?"

It was revealed that scientists had informed the EPA of harmful air quality and dust at the disaster site that contained "dangerous levels of asbestos and other carcinogens." A September 14 draft of an EPA press release sited elevated asbestos levels and, as Nadler wrote in a New York Timesop-ed, "expressed concern for workers at the cleanup site and for employees who would be returning to their offices 'on or near Water Street' on September 17." The White House deleted the warning and instead went with, "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district."

Christine Todd Whitman, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, testified that opening the stock market quickly was important: "We weren't going to let the terrorists win." As for revisions to public statements Whitman said it was critical at the time for the federal government to speak with "one voice."

How about an honest voice? A Mount Sinai Hospital study that began last year showed that 70 percent of the first 9,000 workers examined reported some kind of respiratory problem after working on the debris pile. Retired Lieutenant Bill Gleason of the New York Fire Department said, "If [Whitman] had stood on the pile and told us how bad it was, she could have saved tens of thousands."

According to Nadler, even the EPA's inspector general has concluded that the early statements about air quality were "falsely reassuring, lacked a scientific basis and were motivated by White House concerns other than public health -- and that, as a result, people were unnecessarily exposed to deadly contaminants."

And when Hurricane Katrina hit the EPA still hadn't learned its lesson. According to OMB Watch, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report "found inadequate monitoring for asbestos around demolition and renovation sites," and that "key information released to the public about environmental contamination was neither timely nor adequate, and in some cases, easily misinterpreted to the public's detriment." But far more damning is what has transpired with regard to FEMA-supplied trailers that an estimated 275,000 Americans are living in.

In March 2006, FEMA field workers began warning of health problems experienced by Hurrican Katrina survivors living in trailers with formaldehyde levels that were 75 times greater than the recommended workplace-safety level. One expectant couple was relocated, but then something that should be stunning, but sadly isn't, happened: the FEMA Office of General Counsel recommended no testing of trailers because--as one logistics expert wrote--testing "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." Another FEMA lawyer wrote, "Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running out on our duty to respond to them." After a man who had complained of formaldehyde fumes was found dead in his trailer, "a 28-person, six-agency conference call took place."

Again, FEMA opposed testing of the trailers. Meanwhile, as Amanda Spake reported in February of this year in The Nation, infants and children were being hospitalized with respiratory illnesses. Air sampling by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the open air at trailer holding stations revealed formaldehyde levels thirty to fifty times greater than the EPA recommendation. Pediatrician Scott Needle, of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi said, "I was seeing kids and families coming in with repeated, prolonged respiratory illnesses--sinus infections, lingering coughs, viral infections that didn't go away. Over the course of three months, I saw several dozen families with these health problems. That's really high, and this isn't something I'd seen in my practice before. All of them were living in FEMA trailers."

"We started testing in Alabama," Becky Gillette, co-chair of the Mississippi Sierra Club, told Spake, "because we got reports from social workers there that so many elderly people living in the trailers were being hospitalized for respiratory conditions. And many of them were dying." The Sierra Club found unsafe formaldehyde levels in 30 of 32 trailers tested.

There were complaints of choking, coughing, nosebleeds, mouth and nasal tumors, sick pets, complicated pregnancies, and deaths. But it wasn't until last Wednesday--nearly a year and a half after the original warnings from field workers and right before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing--that FEMA announced it would conduct random testing of trailers.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman deemed FEMA's non-action "an official policy of premeditated ignorance.... senior officials in Washington didn't want to know what they already knew, because they didn't want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done."

One former army officer living in a trailer with his wife testified, "We have lost a great deal through our dealings with FEMA, not the least of which is our faith in government."

How many Katrina survivors might have been saved had testing begun a month ago? Or six months ago? Or a year? Or if people had been listened to and relocated?

How many workers who showed heroism after 9-11, who this administration praised but then left to fend for themselves, would still be healthy today if had they been properly warned?

The Bush government legacy is this: sacrificing proclaimed heroes, and turning its back on our most vulnerable citizens. We have fallen far indeed.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

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