Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The ongoing environmental disaster of 9/11.

Immediately after the August 2003 Inspector General’s report, Whitman was quoted as saying &ldquowhen people are really upset, you can’t win. You’ve got to say something, and what we communicated was what we knew. There may be long-term health implications we never could have conceived of, but we couldn’t stop and stay, `We can’t tell you for 10 years.’ That absolutely wouldn’t work”. Orkin is scathing in her response: ”It is not that when people are really upset, you can’t win. It’s that when people lie, you can’t win. From day one, EPA has hidden behind the faux innocent mask of, 'What do you expect us to do? This was unprecedented'. This was not the first environmental disaster they ever had to cope with. They are in the business of coping with environmental disasters and have procedures and precedents for doing so, all of which they violated in their response to 9/11. The precedents would have entailed expense so they reinvented the wheel as a triangle. But even taking Ms. Whitman’s quote at face value: If they ‘couldn’t tell us for ten years’ then they should have said that. Instead they took it upon themselves to assure people it was safe”.

As testing went ahead in the days after 9/11 EPA scientists themselves were amongst those surprised by Whitman's statements. Robert Martin, the EPA ombudsman, who would later have his office closed by Whitman, recalled in an interview with journalist Laura Flanders that &ldquoit was not safe. You can't have good science without good facts”. Dr Cate Jenkins, a hazardous waste expert at the EPA, criticised the statements made by Whitman's office about asbestos levels, which claimed that the levels found were slightly above the 1% trigger, though for every fiber of asbestos EPA found, using outdated testing equipment, independent testers found nine.

Now, four years later, there is still argument within the scientific community about the environmental impact of the WTC attacks on public health. Researchers such as George D. Thurston, Professor of Environmental Medicine at New York University, have suggested that, broadly speaking, the EPA's assurances have been borne out. Thurston in an interview with Chemical and Engineering News in 2003, was quoted as saying that by October 2001 at &ldquosites five blocks away from Ground Zero, the air was really like other parts of the city. It was, thankfully, abbreviated exposures that people got to this plume [of debris from the WTC] -when they did get it”. Thurston did point out though, in a statement to the Committee on Environment and Public Works of the US Senate, that &ldquoit is impossible to know what potential interactive effects might have occurred among the various pollutants, even at these low levels”. Other scientists, such as Dr Marjorie Clark, have argued vigorously against the EPA's findings, and suggest that the bungled clean up operation still poses a significant public health threat.

As well as finding fault in the premature reassurances issued by the EPA, Jenna Orkin and various citizens groups are highly critical of the actual clean up operation post-9/11. Amongst the key complaints are that it covered a far too limited and arbitrarily determined area (for example, Brooklyn, where Orkin lives, and where air borne debris drifted has not had adequate testing measures, let alone clean up), and focussed primarily on asbestos despite the fact that independent testing had shown the presence of a variety of other contaminants. At the same time, the execution of the tests used by the EPA was, according to Orkin, substandard (some residents observed that EPA failed to turn on a fan, for instance, though required, or that they placed it facing the wrong direction). Ventilation systems were largely overlooked, though independent testing had suggested that these systems posed a significant risk. By precedent the EPA should have warned people that soft furnishings such as carpets and sofas could never be adequately cleaned and should thus be thrown out – in the case of the 9/11 clean up this information was not given. The most important criticism though was the terms in which the clean up was described, says Orkin: &ldquoThey couched the cleanup in terms of, ‘If you’re concerned, we’ll come clean your apartment out of the goodness of our hearts'. However since their flier explicity told people that EPA did NOT expect long term health consequences from whatever might still be in their apartments, about 80% of the people to whom the testing program was offered decided not to bother”.

The EPA commissioned a report, The Lessons Learned in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001, but to citizens like Orkin the report means little: &ldquoWhat they’ve really learned is the art of lying and sacrificing their own citizens when it’s to their advantage. To be more specific: prior to 9/11, when the EPA cleaned up a disaster in a populated area, they aimed for a 1/1,000,000 extra cancer risk per contaminant. In the case of Lower Manhattan, they decided we could be exposed to a hundred times that cancer risk per contaminant, and unlike most environmental disasters, this one had hundreds of contaminants whose synergistic effect could be explosive. So what the Federal Government has learned is that when an area is economically important, the bottom line trumps public health”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that these problems are a thing of the past. In reality, no-one knows yet what effect the fallout from 9/11 will have on public health. At the same time, the clean up is far from finished. Several contaminated buildings in Manhattan are scheduled for demolition currently, while, as Orkin points out, the precedent of the 9/11 cleanup may now be used as an operating principle in any future attacks/environmental disasters.

A number of groups, such as Orkin's, are pressing for specific measures from the US Government in response to the bungled clean up operation:

  • Comprehensive healthcare for all those who are now or will become ill from their exposure to the contamination resulting from 9/11.

    (&ldquoWe expect a broad spectrum of illnesses, – explains Orkin – not just respiratory but also neurological, endocrinological etc., all of which will need to be addressed. And some cancers will not manifest themselves for several decades.

    Many of those affected are immigrant workers who do not have health insurance. Congresspersons Shays and Maloney have introduced an excellent Bill that covers many of these problems”).

  • Comprehensive representative testing for residual contamination to be followed by cleanup as warranted.

    (Consistently demanded by Congressman Jerrold Nadler as well as community activists and the former EPA ombudsman, and currently being considered by the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel).

  • The upcoming demolition of several contaminated buildings highlight the difficult position New York citizens are in, as Orkin explains: &ldquoIronic as it may sound considering their abominable response to 9/11 so far, we need the EPA, the only entity with the wherewithal to do it, to perform its legally mandated duty and take control of these ‘deconstructions’. With the proviso, of course, that they do it right”.

    EPA Inspector General’s Report 2003

    World Trade Centre Environmental Organization

    The Sierra Club Report on 9/11

    NY committee on occupational safety and health

    9/11 environmental action

    New York environmental law and justice project

    US Environmental Protection Agency

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