Whistleblower petitions for expanded first-responder protection

A former U.S. EPA scientist and longtime agency whistleblower today filed a petition calling for strengthened federal corrosivity standards to protect first responders like those who were exposed to dangerous dust particles after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Cate Jenkins argues that EPA has operated under weak alkaline corrosivity standards that subjected first responders at the World Trade Center site to dust particles that were so caustic they caused severe respiratory disabilities and death.

Jenkins, who spent more than 30 years at the agency and worked in EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, believes EPA has undertaken a coordinated effort to downplay the human health dangers of the dust that was thrown into the air after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

It was a subject that Jenkins raised for nearly 10 years as a senior scientist at the agency until she was fired earlier this year over an incident in which she threatened one of her managers. Jenkins has argued that the incident was manufactured to finally remove her from her position at EPA.

In an email today, EPA didn't respond directly to Jenkins' charges but said the federal response to the 2001 terrorist attacks have been "thoroughly examined," including by EPA's inspector general.


'What is clear is that dedicated EPA staff worked tirelessly under nearly impossible conditions to respond to an unprecedented disaster that occurred mere blocks from them," spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn wrote.

"The events tested the agency in ways we had never foreseen and it is clear that some things could have been done better. Our focus every day since 9/11 has been on working to improve and expand our capacity to respond to emergencies; our focus on this day is on remembering and honoring those who were lost on that day in New York, in Pennsylvania and in Virginia."

When Jenkins raised her concerns in the past, EPA has noted that Jenkins was not involved in testing of air particles at the World Trade Center site and that her concerns have been a disagreement over scientific method and not the validity of testing results.

In their petition today, Jenkins and her co-petitioners at the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claim that the low standards were the result of EPA misapplying a safety level developed by the U.N. World Health Organization when the agency was originally writing its own guidance.

The mistake set a standard that was 10 times less protective than what it should be, the petition states.

Since the rule was originally set in 1980, EPA's Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery "has reviewed and reassessed this falsified pH level over the years, perpetuating the fraud, and continues to this day to maintain the Corrosivity Characteristic regulation regulations which incorporate this unsafe pH level," the petition states.

In a joint release accompanying the petition, Jenkins and PEER say they believe EPA is refusing to tighten the standard out of fear of liability and industry "pressure because the same health dangers, though on a smaller scale, attend workers and spectators at most building demolitions and people living around cement plants."

"This petition will right a monstrous wrong left uncorrected by official gross negligence," stated PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein, who co-filed the petition today with Jenkins. "It is past time for EPA to ensure that the heroic sacrifice of the WTC First Responders is never repeated."

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