U.S. EPA has agreed to consider clamping down on corrosive dust after watchdogs complained that the current standards failed to protect rescue workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The agency committed to respond to those complaints by March 2016 with a tentative decision about whether or not to issue new federal corrosivity standards. A federal appeals court last Friday agreed to put a lawsuit over EPA's dust rules on hold while the agency considers its next moves.
"EPA can no longer hide from this serious public health concern; it finally has to act," said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel at the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Getting agencies like EPA to admit they have been wrong, especially when many people have died as a result, is no small undertaking."
PEER sued EPA last September in an attempt to force the agency to drastically strengthen alkaline corrosivity standards. The watchdog argues that first responders to the World Trade Center in the wake of the 2001 attacks were exposed to dust so harmful that it caused permanent damage to their respiratory systems, and that current standards meant they weren't properly informed about the dangers (Greenwire, Sept. 9, 2014).
"The current 35-year old EPA regulation is ten times more lax than the presumed safe levels for alkaline corrosives set by the United Nations, the European Union and Canada," PEER said today in a statement.
Under EPA standards, "these dangerous levels are exempt from hazardous waste regulations. As a result, EPA has never before issued any warning to the public because of the alkaline, corrosive properties of dust from implosion demolitions of large buildings, including at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks."
PEER and an EPA whistleblower first filed a petition calling for EPA to issue tighter standards in September 2011.
EPA scientist Cate Jenkins accused the agency in 2006 of undertaking a coordinated effort to downplay the human health dangers of the dust created by the destruction of the World Trade Center (Greenwire, Aug. 28, 2006).
EPA later tried to fire Jenkins, alleging in 2011 that she was an intimidating employee who once threatened to kill her supervisor, but she won reinstatement in 2012. EPA withdrew a second attempt to fire her in 2013 (Greenwire, Sept. 26, 2013).
An EPA spokeswoman said in response to the 2011 petition that the government's response to the 2001 attacks had been "thoroughly examined" and that "dedicated EPA staff worked tirelessly under nearly impossible conditions to respond to an unprecedented disaster" (Greenwire, Sept. 8, 2011).
An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.