The Magazine

Clearing the Air

Did the EPA really cover up New York's 9/11 air pollution?

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Of former Bush officials, Christine Todd Whitman would seem to be the most difficult to cast as a White House puppet. During her tenure as Environmental Protection Agency director from 2001 to 2003, Whitman looked askance at the Bush line on global warming. It became clear early on, says one ex-administration official, that there were "Whitman people" at EPA who repeatedly sparred with "Bush people" elsewhere in the administration.

Yet the former New Jersey governor, a famously moderate-to-liberal Republican, faced a rabid grilling the week before last by House Democrats, who believe the government lied about post-9/11 air quality in Lower Manhattan in order to expedite the reopening of Wall Street. Growing visibly angry at times, and sighing resignedly at others, Whitman denied the allegations, which gained currency among Democrats after an August 2003 report by the EPA inspector general on the agency's response to the World Trade Center collapse.

The June 25 hearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Jerrold Nadler began without a single GOP member present (a few eventually showed up). A New York Democrat whose district includes Ground Zero, Nadler decried the "reckless disregard" of those federal officials who, according to Nadler, deliberately downplayed the risks to first responders digging through the World Trade Center rubble and to those living and working around the financial district.

"Our government knowingly exposed thousands of American citizens unnecessarily to deadly hazardous materials, and because it has never admitted the truth, Americans remain at grave risk to this day," Nadler said. "Thousands of first responders, residents, area workers, and students are sick, and some are dead--and that toll will continue to grow until we get the truth and take appropriate action."

As proof of this malevolent conspiracy, Nadler and other Democrats pointed to the August 2003 EPA inspector general's report, which concluded that Whitman "did not have sufficient data and analyses" to declare the air in Lower Manhattan "safe to breathe" on September 18, 2001, as she did. "At that time," said the inspector general, "air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern, including particulate matter and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Furthermore, the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." But the report continued: "Because of numerous uncertainties--including the extent of the public's exposure and a lack of health-based benchmarks--a definitive answer to whether the air was safe to breathe may not be settled for years to come."

In other words, the science was murky at the time and remained so two years later. In a September 2003 interview with NBC reporter Lisa Myers, then-EPA inspector general Nikki Tinsley was asked whether she had "any evidence that the public was harmed by reassurances that air-quality levels were safe." Tinsley responded, "No, we don't have any evidence of that."

Democrats also highlighted the testimony of former EPA communications official Tina Kreisher, who told the inspector general that she "felt extreme pressure" over the press releases from Samuel Thernstrom of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

After 9/11, the White House established a "single point of contact" system to aid with crisis management and ensure that agencies such as EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Security Council were on the same page. Thernstrom became the press "point of contact" for all EPA news releases, sending those releases to the National Security Council for endorsement. He and Kreisher did squabble over procedural matters--which even led to "screaming telephone calls" (as had also happened before 9/11). Kreisher apparently felt pressured to obey the proper chain of command. But did Thernstrom's edits of EPA press releases amount to a conscious falsification of the science?

Not according to Kreisher. "While editing changes were made based on recommendations by the Council on Environmental Quality," she said at Nadler's hearing, "I believed those changes to be upsetting in some cases but not false. I still believe that to be true." Did she feel "political pressure" to doctor the press releases? "No," Kreisher said. For her part, Whitman said that she "felt no 'extreme pressure' from the White House" either.