NEW YORK -- 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
That finding is included in a report released Friday by the
Office of the Inspector General of the EPA. It noted that some
of the agency's news releases in the weeks after the attack
were softened before being released to the public: Reassuring
information was added, while cautionary information was
"When the EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air
was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and
analyses to make such a blanket statement," the report says.
"Furthermore, the White House Council on Environmental Quality
influenced . . . 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."
On the morning of
Sept. 12, according to the report, the office of then-EPA
Administrator Christie Whitman issued a memo: "All statements
to the media should be cleared through the NSC (National
Security Council in the White House) before they are
released." The 165-page report compares excerpts from EPA
draft statements to the final versions, including these:
BUSH ADMINISTRATION: NYC AIR
'SAFE TO BREATHE'
The Statue of Liberty stands in the
foreground as New York is shrouded in smoke and
pollution in New York image made from television,
Tuesday Sept. 11, 2001. (ABC via APTN)
The draft statement contained a warning from EPA scientists
that homes and businesses near ground zero should be cleaned
by professionals. Instead, the public was told to follow
instructions from New York City officials.
Another draft statement was deleted; it raised concerns
about "sensitive populations" such as asthma patients, the
elderly and people with underlying respiratory diseases.
LEVELS OF ASBESTOS
A statement about discovery of asbestos at higher than safe
levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was changed to
state that "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air
quality meets OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health
Administration) standards and consequently is not a cause for
Language in an EPA draft stating that asbestos levels in
some areas were three times higher than national standards was
changed to "slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining
This sentence was added to a Sept. 16 news release: "Our
tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work
in New York's financial district." It replaced a statement
that initial monitors failed to turn up dangerous samples.
A warning on the importance of safely handling ground zero
cleanup, due to lead and asbestos exposure, was changed to say
that some contaminants had been noted downtown but "the
general public should be very reassured by initial sampling."
The report also notes examples when EPA officials claimed
that conditions were safe when no scientific support was
New York's leaders responded with dismay.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, called for a
Justice Department investigation. "That the White House
instructed EPA officials to downplay the health impact of the
World Trade Center contaminants due to 'competing
considerations' at the expense of the health and lives of New
York City residents is an abomination," he said in a news
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview it was
"understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House
did not want the EPA to sound alarmist." But, he warned, "If
the public loses faith that things are safe when the
government says so, we'll have done more damage than a pointed
statement the week after 9/11 would have."
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko, who sat in on
EPA meetings with the White House during the attack's
aftermath, said in an interview that the White House had
played a coordinating role, assembling information from
various federal agencies.
"It was a role someone had to play," Horinko said. "There
was a potential for a Tower of Babel, and we needed to speak
with one voice."
The National Security Council played the key role,
filtering incoming data on ground zero air and water, Horinko
said. "I think that the thinking was, these are experts in WMD
(weapons of mass destruction), so they should have the
The focus at EPA, she continued, was on gathering data and
making it public as rapidly as possible.
"Under unbelievably trying conditions, EPA did the best
that it could," she said.
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