Just two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks spewed a colossal plume of dust, smoke and soot into the atmosphere, U.S. EPA began reassuring Lower Manhattan residents and first responders about air quality.
Within a week, then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said her agency's air monitoring showed the "public in these areas are not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances."
"Given the scope of the tragedy from last week," Whitman said in a statement, "I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."
That turned out not to be the case. Ensuing investigations -- including a damning 2003 report by EPA's inspector general -- found that the agency did not have the necessary data to conclude the air was safe and that the White House improperly influenced EPA's public statements in order to promote a reassuring tone.
The remarks contributed to the ongoing controversy surrounding the toxic substances first responders and civilians inhaled and the health effects of that exposure.
Ten years later, the 9/11 response remains a black eye for EPA. But the agency -- along with other regulators -- say they learned important lessons and if another large-scale disaster occurs, they are prepared. They point to new programs and guidance documents that, they say, would mitigate environmental risks posed to first responders and people who live near a disaster area.
Public health advocates and some lawmakers, however, see it differently. They say regulators have done little to compensate for their mistakes after the 9/11 attacks. And, moreover, they have little confidence the regulators won't make the same mistakes again.
"Had Christine Todd Whitman and the White House not lied about the safety of the air a lot of people would not be sick today," said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D), who has led congressional efforts on the 9/11 air contamination.
Asked if EPA has put a better system in place, Nadler said: "I'm not confident that there would be much change. ... They have not made systematic changes that I'm aware of."
Whitman, who left EPA in 2003, said the agency worked quickly to evaluate its response performance.
"EPA was the first agency to do a 'lessons learned' after the crises to determine and strengthen what we did well, as well as identify what we could have done better and make any changes needed," Whitman said in an email.
The former New Jersey governor said the agency "vastly updated its communications center at EPA headquarters" as a direct response to the 9/11 response.
Whitman declined to be interviewed about other aspects of the 9/11 response.
EPA acknowledged some of the problems in how it handled 9/11 but also pointed to several new programs since that day that it has implemented.
"The events tested the agency in ways we had never foreseen and it is clear that some things could have been done better," EPA said in a statement to Greenwire. "Our focus every day since 9/11 has been on working to improve and expand our capacity to respond to emergencies."
Shaping response framework
Since the 2003 inspector general's report, EPA played a lead role in the development of the National Response Framework (NRF), which is intended to coordinate interagency response to disasters.
Further, in June 2003 EPA launched a new National Approach to Response (NAR), a multipronged program for harmonizing the multiple response divisions within EPA. Part of that program is a new protocol for communications and how information -- like air quality test results -- is released to the public.
The agency also established the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and an Emergency Operations Center. The OEM streamlined the agency's structure by eliminating redundant departments. And the Emergency Operations Center is designed to serve as EPA's headquarters in a crisis, providing information to local authorities and agencies such as the Homeland Security Department. The Operations Center has already been put to use during domestic and international disasters, including the March tsunami in Japan.
Lastly, EPA says it has implemented new training measures for first responders.
None of that, however, stopped the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), from sharply criticizing EPA yesterday for a "woefully lax" air standard that the watchdog group says contributed to the health problems post-9/11.
PEER argues that the agency has misapplied a chemical corrosivity standard developed by the U.N. World Health Organization when EPA was writing its own limit. As a result, the EPA standard for alkaline corrosives, they say, is 10 times more lax than that set by the United Nations.
And despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the effects such chemicals have had on the lungs of 9/11 first responders, EPA has not changed it, PEER said (Greenwire, Sept. 8).
The group filed a petition urging EPA to make a rule to tighten the standard so first responders would be alerted to use protective devices in order to avoid lung damage.
"This petition will right a monstrous wrong left uncorrected by official gross negligence," PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein said in a statement. "It is past time for EPA to ensure that the heroic sacrifice of the WTC First Responders is never repeated."
Nadler also took aim at EPA for its cleanup efforts. Ten years later, he said, the cleanup in New York is still unfinished.
"There are still probably people being poisoned to this day," he said.
Improved tracking of responders
Other regulators also say they learned from 9/11.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has worked with a diverse panel of organizations such as the Coast Guard, Red Cross and Army Corps of Engineers to develop a guidance document to be used in emergency response.
The document, "Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance," is still in draft form. But Margaret Kitt, NIOSH's deputy director, said it seeks to provide a response structure, or "shell," that can be scaled up or down depending on the sizes of the disaster.
The massive guidebook includes several rules that are directly related to problems NIOSH encountered post 9/11. Those include maintaining a detailed roster of responders and a database of injuries or illnesses that arise following the disaster.
Kitt said NIOSH, which is now administering the World Trade Center Health Program for 9/11 responders who have since fallen ill, had a very difficult time retroactively coming up with the roster of 9/11 first responders.
NIOSH also now has an emergency response and preparedness division.
Kitt said that every disaster like 9/11 pushes the agency to be more prepared and more effective.
"Each event," she said, "raises the bar for the expectations that every effort will be taken that responders will be properly protected, trained and followed."
NIOSH still remains a target for those fighting for 9/11 first responders, though. In July, NIOSH said there was insufficient evidence to add cancer to the list of diseases caused by the 9/11 dust. Consequently, cancer would not be covered by the first responder health care program (Greenwire, July 27).
The decision infuriated lawmakers and public health advocates. This week, a coalition that included Nadler, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and others filed a petition urging NIOSH to reconsider including cancer on the list after a recent study found first responders were significantly more likely to develop cancer than the general population.
NIOSH will re-examine the cancer determination in mid-2012, but Gillibrand said too much damage can be done in that time.
"Our first responders and their families continue to suffer physically and financially from deadly cancers," Gillibrand said. "The longer they have to wait on a cancer determination, the longer our 9/11 heroes will continue to suffer without proper treatment or compensation. For many responders, this is a matter of life and death, and we will do everything possible to speed up this process."