As Jori Lewis notes in the case study about World Trade Center recovery workers’ health and safety, those who showed up at Ground Zero on the days and weeks after 9/11 got some misleading information about the risks they faced. Most notably, the EPA issued reassuring statements about the air quality – when, according to a 2003 EPA Inspector General report, the agency had insufficient data and analyses to support calling the air there safe. More accurate information might have increased the use of respirators and delayed people’s return to homes and offices in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Now, new documents obtained by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and analyzed by ProPublica, demonstrate the back-and-forth between federal officials that turned incomplete and alarming information into misleading reassurances.
Several years ago, NYCOSH workplace safety expert David Newman wanted to know more about how the involved various agencies (including multiple federal, state, and city entities) made decisions regarding worker safety, so he started filing Freedom of Information Act requests. ProPublica analyzed the many documents NYCOSH collected, and has posted them on online for easy access by the public. A ProPublica article by Anthony DePalma, author of “City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11,” describes the findings:
In one instance, a warning that people should not report to work on a busy thoroughfare in the financial district–Water Street–was rewritten and workers instead were urged to return to their offices as soon as the financial district opened on Sept. 17. In another, federal officials declared that testing showed the area was safe when sampling of the air and dust–which ultimately found very high levels of toxic chemicals–had barely begun.
… Early on Sept. 13, a day and a half after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, [Council on Environmental Quality Associate Director of Communications Samuel] Thernstrom called OSHA’s New York office to say [EPA Administrator Christine Todd] Whitman was on her way to the city to talk to reporters about the agency’s air testing “since all monitoring reports have been so positive thus far,” according to an OSHA email. But according to its own records, the EPA had only tested a handful of asbestos samples before Sept. 14 and didn’t get the results of tests for other contaminants until Sept. 23.
A joint press release put out by the EPA and OSHA said dust samples taken from cars and buildings on Sept. 13 had asbestos levels “slightly above” the 1 percent level at which federal regulations apply. The new documents, however, specify that the samples contained 2.1 to 3.3 percent asbestos–or 200 percent to 300 percent higher than the trigger standard.
The Council on Environmental Quality is a branch of the Executive Office of the President, and is perhaps best known for editing scientific reports to downplay the role of greenhouse-gas emissions in climate change during the Bush Administration. It played a significant role in the content of the communications from the executive branch in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, DePalma reports:
Within days of the twin towers’ collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York’s Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.
… The original draft of the release that was going to be issued by the EPA and OSHA said “higher levels of asbestos” had been found in seven samples taken by OSHA on Water Street in the Financial District. The Inspector General’s office examined inter-agency emails and found that after the White House reviewed the draft and suggested revisions, the information about Water Street was removed, as was this warning to office workers: “The concern raised by these samples would be for workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street.”
The newly released documents show that, in place of the caution about Water Street, office workers were urged to return to work on Monday, Sept. 17. “Our tests show it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s financial district,” OSHA’s administrator says in the final version of the release.
There’s much more in the full article — read it here.
NYCOSH’s Newman explains what the official response was, compared to what it should have been: “These documents confirm that what happened at the World Trade Center is that we proceeded with a minimalist approach in terms of caution and never really scaled it up as it became necessary, rather than assuming the worst-case scenario and scaling it back as appropriate.”
I like to think that the people who decided to withhold or invent information about air quality around the World Trade Center site didn’t think their decisions would cost lives. Now we know that hundreds of people have been sickened, and in some cases killed, by respiratory and other illnesses linked to exposures in the area. I hope during the next disaster of this scale (which may be either natural or human-caused), officials remember that it’s better to be honest than to offer false assurances of safety.