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New York Times

EPA Watchdog Rips White House on NYC Air

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2003—At the White House's direction, the Environmental Protection Agency gave New Yorkers misleading assurances that there was no health risk from the debris-laden air after the World Trade Center collapse, according to an internal inquiry.

President Bush's senior environmental adviser on Friday defended the White House involvement, saying it was justified by national security.

The White House "convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" by having the National Security Council control EPA communications in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to a report issued late Thursday by EPA Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley.

"When EPA made a Sept. 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, the agency did not have sufficient data and analyses to make the statement," the report says, adding that the EPA had yet to adequately monitor air quality for contaminants such as PCBs, soot and dioxin.

In all, the EPA issued five press releases within 10 days of the attacks and four more by the end of 2001 reassuring the public about air quality. But it wasn't until June 2002 that the EPA determined that air quality had returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels—well after respiratory ailments and other problems began to surface in hundreds of workers cleaning dusty offices and apartments.

The day after the attacks, former EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher's chief of staff e-mailed senior EPA officials to say that "all statements to the media should be cleared" first by the National Security Council, which is Bush's main forum for discussing national security and foreign policy matters with his senior aides and Cabinet, the inspector general's report says.

Approval from the NSC, the report says, was arranged through the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which "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."

For example, the inspector general found, EPA was convinced to omit guidance for cleaning indoor spaces and tips on potential health effects from airborne dust containing asbestos, lead, glass fibers and concrete.

James Connaughton, chairman of the environmental council, which coordinates federal environmental efforts, said the White House directed the EPA to add and delete information based on how it should be released publicly. He said the EPA did "an incredible job" with the World Trade Center cleanup.

"The White House was involved in making sure that we were getting the most accurate information that was real, on a wide range of activities. That included the NSC—this was a major terrorist incident," Connaughton said.

"In the back and forth during that very intense period of time," he added, "we were making decisions about where the information should be released, what the best way to communicate the information was, so that people could respond responsibly and so that people had a good relative sense of potential risk."

Andy Darrell, New York regional director of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, said the report is indicative of a pattern of White House interference in EPA affairs. "For EPA to do its job well, it needs to be allowed to make decisions based on the science and the facts," he said.

Marianne L. Horinko, EPA's acting administrator, said the White House's role was mainly to help the EPA sift through an enormous amount of information.

"We put out the best information we had, based on just the best data that we had available at the time," said Horinko, who headed the agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, which oversaw the World Trade Center environmental monitoring and cleanup.

"And it was using our best professional judgment; it was not as a result of pressure from the White House," she said. "The White House's role was basically to say, 'Look, we've got data coming in from everywhere. What benchmarks are we going to use, how are we going to communicate this data? We can't have this Tower of Babel on the data."

The EPA inspector general recommended that EPA adopt new procedures so its public statements on health risks and environmental quality are supported by data and analysis. Other recommendations include developing better procedures for indoor air cleanups and asbestos handling in large-scale disasters.