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2003-08-26

EPA Report: White House Lied to New Yorkers About Health Hazards Near Ground Zero

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An EPA report reveals that White House staff ordered the EPA to minimize health dangers after 911 and Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez reveals that the man responsible was previously an industry lawyer who represented major asbestos and toxic polluters. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript An Environmental Protection Agency report released Friday reveals that the National Security Council pressured EPA officials to downplay the health hazards caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The public was lied to about the extensive presence of asbestos from the two buildings, toxic dioxins floating in the downtown air, and increased amounts of lead found in the atmosphere. The report reveals the trail of public misinformation began in the White House.

For example, one statement from the initial draft revealed that asbestos levels in some areas were three times higher than national standards. This was changed to say "slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material."

In another case, despite warnings by EPA scientists, a sentence was added to a Sept. 16 news release concluding "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s financial district."

And a statement which raised concerns about "sensitive populations" such as asthma patients, the elderly and people with underlying respiratory diseases was deleted.

In today’s Daily News Juan Gonzalez reveals that the man in charge of the Council on Environmental Quality is James Connaughton. Before his appointment by President Bush Connaughton was an industry lawyer who represented major asbestos and toxic polluters.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Juan joins us on the line right now. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Good day Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about what you found after you read this, well, more than 160 page report and specifically start with James Connaughton.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, well Connaughton before he was appointed in June in 2001 by President Bush worked as a lawyer representing firms like SARCO, which has more than 1,000 asbestos liability suits against it and represented other companies, General Electric and others who in the past have had major problems with pollution. So it’s astounding that this man who has made a living representing polluters, especially asbestos polluting companies now suddenly was a guy who told the E.P.A. directly to change language about—in relation to asbestos particularly.

For instance, there was the original draft of a September 13th E.P.A. press release, which was one of the first press releases the E.P.A. put out— said, quote, "Even at low levels E.P.A. considers asbestos hazardous in this situation." That was changed by the White House to say, quote, "Short term, low level exposure to asbestos of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects." It’s basically turning the statement upside down.

So it’s particularly chilling to find out that the guy who was in charge at the White House of environmental quality policy was ordering the scientists in the health officials to change material in these releases.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the line by Jack Ginty, of the Uniformed Fire Officer’s Association. You survived the World Trade Center collapse. Can you talk about what you’re calling for firefighters here in New York, more than 300 were killed.

JACK GINTY: 343 of our people were killed that day. And what we’re calling for is just for them to come out with the truth. Anybody that was there that day—I was there five minutes after the first plane struck. I was there when the second plane struck. I stayed there from that Tuesday to Saturday. It was obvious to anybody walking around that there was not just a stench, but the air was polluted.

From the afternoon, Tuesday, September 11, when the planes hit— even that afternoon when we went back to as we called it "the pile", to try to recover people, we sked many times, is it safe here? We were told by city officials, federal officials, "oh, yeah, we’ve tested the air, the air is fine." This isn’t the first time that this kind of situation happened. Back around 1974,1975, they had the New York city telephone fire. The same thing, heavy smoke condition. As it turned out with the burning insulation and the covering on the wires was P.V.C., polyvinyl chloride. And again we were assured that, no problem. Since then, hundreds of firemen have died as a result of that New York city telephone fire.

We’re in the same situation here. Here we are a year down the road, two years down the road, three years; now, finally the truth comes out that they have been lying to us all the way along. In fact, there’s a bill right now in Albany that passed both the Senate and is in the assembly in New York without any negative comment to allow anybody that worked at the World Trade Center—that if should they retire or should come back down at a later date with either cancer or anything that will be related there, they could then go back and get disability pension. That passed both houses and is on the desk of the governor. We’ll see if he will sign that. It doesn’t surprise me or anyone down there that we were lied to. It was obvious that first day that there were numerous pollutants in the air. Had we known, we could have operated in a different fashion— I wouldn’t say on the first day, when it came down. We just went down there to see if we could recover anybody we could. But by later on that night, we realized we weren’t in a rescue mode; we were in recovery mode. We could have done that better.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Ginty, Mayor Bloomberg, mayor of New York, said he trusts President Bush.

JACK GINTY: I would hope it never got to his level, the White House. It almost shakes your trust in the country when you think that a president would do that. I would just hope it was a lower functionary, that he did it, that somebody eight levels below him just changed it without him seeing it. Because he was there. I was there when he came and he was with us, all the firemen, saying that he was going to get the people that did it and he’d make sure he’d take care of us. Now to find out at a later date like this that they were lying, it’s very discouraging.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Gonzales, what about this evidence that it goes right to the White House and how high up it goes?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I think that one of the interesting things about this, I think for this you can definitely blame the president, is that Connaughton and the people from the Council on Environmental Equality refused requests by the E.P.A. Inspector General to be interviewed on their role or on who gave them the order to do what they did.

So at this point the White House is refusing to cooperate or has refused to cooperate with the Inspector General’s office and Inspector General made that clear in the report. I think it would be very easy for President Bush to tell his staff members, "listen, cooperate with this investigation, I want to get to the bottom of what happened." So far that hasn’t happened.

I think also the most important thing I think out of the report that has not gotten a lot of attention is that the I.T.'s office looked at the current clean up that the E.P.A., finally after months and months of criticism and public outcry, agreed it was going to do a clean up of lower Manhattan, but decided only to do residential apartments and only those where people requested it. The inspector general's report says quite clearly that this clean up is inadequate—that the only way that a real clean up of downtown Manhattan can happen is, number one, if buildings are cleaned up as systems. If you have a central air conditioning system and three or four apartments want to be cleaned up but the whole building is not cleaned up that pollution can travel through the HVAC system back into apartments that have been cleaned.

The Inspector General is recommending that buildings be cleaned all together, all at once and also the inspector general is saying that the commercial office buildings have to be cleaned, not just residential buildings. And the E.P.A.'s response to that is that's going to cost a lot of money. So the inspector general reminds E.P.A. in his rebuttal or her rebuttal that President Bush and Christie Todd Whitman originally said that no expense should be spared for the people of lower Manhattan. I think that is the battle that is still being waged by people like Congressman Jerry Nadler and Senator Hillary Clinton. I think they will have a press conference today about it—that the full clean up of lower Manhattan still has to be completed because if there were pollutants, and there were, that made their way into buildings that have not been properly cleaned, then that pollution and those toxic chemicals are still there, circulating in the air.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you had trouble even getting it into your own paper, the exposes, that you were doing before anyone else on the environmental quality down at the World Trade Center, the New York Daily News.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Not initially getting into it the paper, I think I originally had quite a bit of support getting into the paper, but once on October 26th, I had a front page piece revealing all of the various toxic chemicals that the E.P.A. had not yet made clear were being emitted from the fires and in and around ground zero. There was quite a bit of pressure on the newspaper. All the way from the E.P.A. and Mayor’s office and everyone else that this was irresponsible reporting, that it was going to damage the reconstruction effort and there was at that point, there was some, let’s say, more careful checking of my stories that went on.

But I think that overall, the large part of the stories on this issue did get into the paper and I think that it’s clear the Inspector General even remarked that public opinion polls showed that 70% of the people in New York did not believe the E.P.A. when it said that the air was safe, and concluded that it will be years before we really know if the air at ground zero was safe because of the enormous quantities of different toxic chemicals that were released at the site and combination of them.

No one really knows the impact, the synergistic effect of people being exposed to so many toxics either in a huge blast on that first day, those people who were caught up in the dust cloud or in a short-term, four month combination of all these different chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy Now! and reporter with the "New York Daily News" and Jack Ginty, Uniformed Fire Officer’s Association. We hoped to be joined by Congress member Nadler. Maybe he’s preparing for his press conference with Hillary Clinton, or being out with Howard Dean tonight at Bryant Park, outside the New York Public Library here in New York City.

You are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on the Bush administration’s exemption of thousands of industrial plants and refineries from the Clean Air Act. Stay with us.


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