EPA misled public on 9/11 pollution
August 23, 2003 9:27 AM   Subscribe

EPA misled public on 9/11 pollution
"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."
posted by jpoulos (17 comments total)
Now hold on just a minute.

The Bush Administration lied to us?

Now I'm pissed!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:12 AM on August 23, 2003

well at least this was posted on mefi - now we'll have a fascinating discussion and this will never happen again.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2003

We don't need no EPA getting the public riled up about "pollution". Don't you know pollution is a communist plot to hurt capitalism?
posted by 2sheets at 10:31 AM on August 23, 2003

Yeah, an advisory to NOT breate would have been intelligent.
posted by MrAnonymous at 10:49 AM on August 23, 2003

and, it's a Laurie Garrett story
posted by matteo at 10:51 AM on August 23, 2003

Wow, you quoted the author. Good job. Now read the report (which I could only find on the Newsday website, thank you very much.)

I can't count how many people were complaining about the air quality in lower manhattan. A few people I know spend half their savings staying in hotels away from home, not willing to have their offspring inhale potential contaminants.
posted by Busithoth at 11:12 AM on August 23, 2003

Yeah, an advisory to NOT breate would have been intelligent.

Or an advisory to take precautions while breathing, like using masks, filters, or just getting the hell out of dodge. Most intelligent adults would have been thankful for the information, whether or not they could immediately act on it.

Most six-year-olds would have asked their parents, "So mommy, does this mean I can't breathe now?"
posted by eyeballkid at 11:54 AM on August 23, 2003

Oh, please, the EPA never lies about anything, ever, eh NortonDC?
posted by shepd at 12:10 PM on August 23, 2003

The report is here in PDF. I live about four blocks from the WTC. I prefer living in denial, thank you very much.
posted by subgenius at 12:59 PM on August 23, 2003

I'm sure that one day the Bush Administration will be forthcoming and honest with the citizens from which they derive their power, but don't hold your breath.
posted by jpburns at 2:09 PM on August 23, 2003

will be forthcoming and honest with the citizens from which they derive their power

well, there's only five of them -- how hard can that be?
posted by matteo at 2:29 PM on August 23, 2003

Full disclosure: I work for the equivalent branch of Environment Canada as the EPA monitoring team, and know the EPA guy who was the incident (on-site) commander quite well.

The report seems to focus on three areas:
  • Press releases were not qualified enough, particularly in the measurements for asbestos and PCBs, possibly because of political meddling. The EPA reported asbestos levels but used the only standards they had: old OSHA guidelines. Asbestos guidelines for emergency clean-ups did not exist on 11Sep01. They didn't monitor immediately for PCBs, true, but they had no reason to suspect they were a problem. PCBs are man-made only, not combustion products. There were none on the site to begin with. Also, writing press releases is very hard. The press will get the science wrong; it's what they do. Offering qualified information only gives the press more to get wrong. It is important to be clear and unambiguous in the event of an emergency. The public doesn't want and cannot judge uncertainties, at least immediately, they want clear guidelines, a yes or a no.
  • Secondly, the EPA press releases did not emphasize proper clean-up for asbestos debris, again possibly because of Whitehouse interference. It certainly looks like there were problems here. Certainly the public did not follow OSHA or EPA clean-up procedures in the majority of cases.
  • Finally, the EPA did not enforce the use of safety equipment, respirators, on site, something they may or may not have had the legal powers to do. Getting firefighters, particularly "cowboys", to wear masks is difficult at the best of times. Firefighters are many, many more times likely to die of cancer, early, than not. The EPA people followed the rules and tried to get the clean-up people to do so, but people are people and working long days with a clumsy full-face mask is very, very uncomfortable. I speak from experience.
To summarize, this report looks a lot like Monday-morning quarterbacking to me. What was done was done based on the knowledge and resources available at the time. To criticize assuming perfect knowledge and infinite capacity is disingenuous. That the EPA didn't meet peer-reviewed asbestos levels, which didn't exist, and that they didn't make everyone wear respirators, not having jurisdiction---that's OSHA, are particularly ignorant criticisms. The communication problems look real, but that took place at a political rather than a scientific level.

Finally, let me add, in my professional opinion, that New York was extraordinarily well-served by EPA. They were on-scene in hours with two trailers the size of city buses, running with no services, providing laboratory-quality analyses almost immediately. I'm not sure that any other agency in the world, even any other part of the EPA, could have responded as quickly and as expertly as did the team from New Jersey. This is not to say that procedures could not be improved and things run better next time, but what happened after 11Sep01 on the ground, by the EPA and the firefighters, in many ways, was a model response operation.
posted by bonehead at 3:07 PM on August 23, 2003

dumbasses. this isn't about the epa lying, or the epa serving new york, or the contents of the epa report, or whether or not asbestos is bad for you, or whether is was or was not safe to breathe the post 9/11 air in manhattan. this is about the bush administration manipulating and foisting lies on the american people. again.
posted by quonsar at 6:00 PM on August 23, 2003

Ignatious- Thanks for the article! Frightening stuff.
posted by kahboom at 8:16 PM on August 23, 2003

this is about the bush administration manipulating and foisting lies on the american people
I quit the Republican party in 1988. I still wonder if that was the right thing, or should I have I have stayed and tried to make a difference? The plight of voting Libertarian.
posted by mischief at 10:39 PM on August 23, 2003

Bonehead, thanks for your detailed post.

I have no doubt there were EPA employees who did their best to assess an unfathomable situation while putting themselves at considerable risk to do so. Perfect or not, I don't think the EPA is to blame here. I think air quality concerns were crushed under pressure from the Feds to get the financial markets reopened as soon as possible and show the world things were getting back to "normal."
posted by Dinzie at 2:06 AM on August 24, 2003

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