January 6, 2005

9/11's Disastrous Precedent

The EPA and a Dirty Bomb


The environmental disaster of 9/11 has ominous repercussions for all Americans: The arguably reckless way the government has responded (or failed to) sets a precedent for future disasters of even greater magnitude such as a dirty bomb.

As Ground Zero workers and some local residents, office workers and students continue to come down with serious respiratory and other illnesses including cancer, the public is becoming aware that the environmental aftermath of 9/11 may ultimately claim more lives than the event itself. It has also been established that the Environmental Protection Agency lied about the air quality following the disaster.(1) And a report issued by the EPA's Inspector General showed that the EPA downplayed the toxicity of the air as a result of pressure from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in part to reopen Wall Street.(2)

It is impossible to know why the EPA, the federal agency in charge of remediating environmental disasters, took its cues from the CEQ. However, the CEQ was far from an obscure backwater of the White House. As of a May, 2001 suggestion by Vice President Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, the Chairman of the CEQ chaired the Interagency Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining which included representatives from the Departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Commerce, Transportation, the Interior, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Energy, Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the General Service Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council.(3)

The policy of money before people which, as promulgated by the CEQ and the EPA, came to the fore after 9/11, has continued to drive the EPA's response to the disaster. The standards used during their initial cleanup, announced on May 8, 2002 after much pressure from community activists as well as Senator Clinton and the indomitable Congressman Nadler, exposed residents (schools and businesses weren't even included in the program) to a hundred times the cancer risk that had been used at "comparable" Superfund sites in the past. Traditionally, EPA cleaned to a standard whereby approximately one person in a million would get cancer from the contaminant involved in any given disaster. In Lower Manhattan, they cleaned to a standard whereby approximately a hundred people out of a million (i.e. one in ten thousand) would get cancer from any contaminant involved in the disaster. Although during the initial, delayed cleanup EPA focussed almost exclusively on asbestos, there were hundreds of carcinogens and other contaminants released on 9/11 and during the fires which burned and smoldered for several months, including dioxin, lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Their additive effects were not taken into account, much less their explosive synergistic effects about which little is known. However work performed at Mt. Sinai has shown that if someone is an asbestos worker and a smoker, for instance, the risk of cancer is not simply twice as bad as being one or the other: It's eighty or ninety times as bad.

At a City Council hearing in March, 2003, EPA's Dr. Paul Gilman (who resigned from the agency in November, 2004) was asked under what circumstances EPA had previously used the standard that put a hundred times as many people at risk of cancer. He responded: Where the area was sparsely populated or few contaminants were released. Clearly, neither of these criteria applied to Lower Manhattan.

Another reason EPA officials gave for using the more lax standard in Lower Manhattan was that the more protective standard was impossible to achieve because their instruments clogged. To anyone who challenged this excuse (isn't the clogging of the instruments an indication that there's a significant amount of potentially toxic dust?) they responded, "This disaster was unprecedented." In other words, "What do you expect us to do?" On the other hand, they also continued to maintain that there was no problem.

(The EPA cleanup was dangerously flawed for other reasons too numerous to go into here but which included using tests that were designed NOT to find contaminants. They did, however, have more accurate tests performed in their own building.(4) They also based part of their cleanup of Lower Manhattan on a finding of visible dust - although their own literature prior to 9/11 discusses the dangers of invisible dust - in addition to proposing testing only where the dust had been visible from an airplane.(5))

It is no surprise, therefore, to read in a New York Times article about the advice the federal government is preparing to give states and local authorities on what to do after a dirty bomb, that antinuclear activists have complained, "the exposure allowed under the contemplated advice would create almost 100 times as much cancer risk as those usually allowed from other kinds of contaminants, like chemicals, or from radiation in other settings."(6)

Why would the feds do this?

The answer appears in an earlier article and sounds all too familiar:

"...an attack using conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials - a dirty bomb - would probably occur in a far more prominent location than a toxic-waste site or a power plant, and the need to resume using the site would be higher, said [radiation specialist for DHS] Mr. Buddemeier, in his presentation to a National Academy of Sciences group.

'When balancing the risk of radiation exposure against the benefit of returning to normal activity, the government safety recommendations will weigh the importance of the contaminated location to economic or political life, said a radiation scientist who works for one of seven federal agencies drafting the document.

'Thus a major train station, cargo port or building in Lower Manhattan might be reoccupied sooner than a suburban shopping mall, said the scientist, who asked not to be identified because the document had not yet been published."(7)

In other words, EPA's standards prior to 9/11 have now been officially turned upside down: The more people who are likely to be exposed (since economically important areas tend to be highly populated) the greater the likelihood that standards designed to protect human health will be overlooked. If you live in the suburbs, the federal government will give your health high priority. But as soon as economic interests enter the picture, the bottom line trumps health and science.

Jenna Orkin is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a potential class action lawsuit against the EPA. She is a member of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization and can be reached at: Jennakilt@aol.com


1. http://landofpuregold.com/truth203.htm


3. http://www.etf.energy.gov/pdfs/eo13212.pdf

4. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3076626


6. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/

7. http://www.projecttahs.org/tahsjsp/t