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Documents Show Feds Downplayed Ground Zero Health Risks
Posted on Sep 11, 2011
By Anthony DePalma, ProPublica
In an email dated Sept. 20, for example, John Henshaw, OSHA’s chief administrator, said he had received a phone call from Thernstrom warning that several senators were asking questions about how OSHA was cooperating with the EPA at ground zero. In response, Henshaw directed his staff to gather details deflecting such concerns.
“I would like to have the information at hand before any inquiries come in, to nip any criticism in the bud,” Henshaw wrote. “They have a history of taking pot shots at us and if we can respond quickly, in a positive, strong, well thought out way, we may take some wind out of there [sic] sails.”
In several instances, the documents show, officials offered assurances about air quality before they even had test results or downplayed the degree of the contamination found.
Early on Sept. 13, a day and a half after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Thernstrom called OSHA’s New York office to say 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.
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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.
“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,” said David M. Newman, a workplace safety expert with NYCOSH.
Newman started filing public information requests several years ago to better understand how federal, state and city agencies made decisions affecting worker safety at ground zero. NYCOSH advocates for worker safety, in partnership with environmental and health groups, workers’ rights organizations and unions whose members worked on the cleanup. (ProPublica is making the full set of documents obtained by NYCOSH available for examination. We have created a page that lets you search through these records.)
One batch of documents obtained by NYCOSH significantly amplifies a White House intervention described more generally in the 2003 Inspector General report. 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.
Officials seemed to be sending two distinct messages: telling office workers and residents the air was safe, while repeatedly warning first responders and crews working right on the debris pile to wear protective gear. Those conflicting assurances and warnings given by federal officials left workers and residents unsure what steps to take to protect themselves.
Critics have accused officials of not leveling with the public about what they knew and didn’t know in the aftermath of the attacks.
In July 2002, for instance, it was revealed that, despite assurances by EPA and OSHA officials, harmful dust remained on Wall Street well after it reopened because vacuum trucks had initially used the wrong filters.
The new documents show that in 2003 an investigator with the Inspector General’s office asked Tina Kreisher, the EPA’s chief spokeswoman on 9/11, whether she or anyone else at the agency considered acknowledging the misstep. Kreisher said she could not remember whether such a discussion had taken place.
Kreisher could not be reached for comment. In her interview with the Inspector General’s office, she acknowledged that the EPA’s choices reflected a conscious effort to reassure the public. “The emphasis came from the administration and the White House.” she said.
Federal officials also opted not to sound alarms even after tests registered unprecedented levels of dioxin at and around ground zero, the NYCOSH documents show.
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