Rescue and cleanup workers, who put their lives on the line in our nation’s darkest hour, weren’t given information about environmental risks and are now paying the price with financial hardship, illness, and even death.
Hundreds of thousands of people living on the Gulf Coast survived a horrific natural disaster and a failed government response, only to be placed in trailers that FEMA knew were at risk for dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
We are witnessing the cumulative impact of the Bush ideology: what columnist Paul Krugman called a “hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good.”
Last month, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil rights, and Civil Liberties, chaired by Representative Jerrold Nadler, held a hearing entitled “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Response to Air Quality Issues Arising from the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001: Were There Substantive Due Process Violations?”
It was revealed that scientists had informed the EPA of harmful air quality and dust at the disaster site that contained “dangerous levels of asbestos and other carcinogens.” A September 14 draft of an EPA press release sited elevated asbestos levels and, as Nadler wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “expressed concern for workers at the cleanup site and for employees who would be returning to their offices ‘on or near Water Street’ on September 17.” The White House deleted the warning and instead went with, “Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s financial district.”
Christine Todd Whitman, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, testified that opening the stock market quickly was important: “We weren’t going to let the terrorists win.” As for revisions to public statements Whitman said it was critical at the time for the federal government to speak with “one voice.”
How about an honest voice? A Mount Sinai Hospital study that began last year showed that 70 percent of the first 9,000 workers examined reported some kind of respiratory problem after working on the debris pile. Retired Lieutenant Bill Gleason of the New York Fire Department said, “If [Whitman] had stood on the pile and told us how bad it was, she could have saved tens of thousands.”
According to Nadler, even the EPA’s inspector general has concluded that the early statements about air quality were “falsely reassuring, lacked a scientific basis and were motivated by White House concerns other than public health — and that, as a result, people were unnecessarily exposed to deadly contaminants.”
And when Hurricane Katrina hit the EPA still hadn’t learned its lesson. According to OMB Watch, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report “found inadequate monitoring for asbestos around demolition and renovation sites,” and that “key information released to the public about environmental contamination was neither timely nor adequate, and in some cases, easily misinterpreted to the public’s detriment.” But far more damning is what has transpired with regard to FEMA-supplied trailers that an estimated 275,000 Americans are living in.