- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The Environmental Protection Agency did not have sufficient data to declare air quality surrounding the World Trade Center "safe to breath" following the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to a government memo.
Health-based standards were not used to evaluate asbestos levels, and short-term health risks were not addressed at ground zero, said the status report on an ongoing investigation by the inspector general.
"EPA did not have data on more than half of the pollutants of concern that scientists believe the public was potentially exposed to immediately after the collapse of the [World Trade Center] towers," the report said.
The EPA dismissed the document as preliminary, and is standing by its efforts to inform the public of health concerns in the immediately aftermath of the towers' collapse and its subsequent cleanup.
"We never said it was safe for the workers to be on top of ground zero without respiratory equipment, we sent thousands of respirators to workers and we said it was a very different exposure than to the general public," said EPA spokesman Joe Martyak.
"Based on the data we collected at the time and the testing and sound science we had, we did believe then and now there are no long-term health risks to the general public," Mr. Martyak said.
Workers were warned to wear protective gear, and people with respiratory ailments were urged to use caution, he said.
"This was a very difficult time for everyone, including the EPA. Our offices had to be evacuated because it was in the same location, and we were all doing what we could to get information out based on the testing we had on the general air in the area," Mr. Martyak said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, has criticized the agency's response after the disaster and questioned it's air-safe declaration.
"The EPA never had a right to say the area was safe it was even guilty of malfeasance because the agency never had any evidence to back it up," Mr. Nadler said yesterday.
"This seems to be more confirmation that the EPA has bungled the whole situation from the get-go," Mr. Nadler said.
The agency's own testing did not support its assertion the air was safe, and used a cancer risk level that was 100 times greater than normally accepted, the memo said.
The final report will be issued in May but is being delayed partially because "attempts to discuss press releases with the Council on Environmental Quality have been drawn out by discussions with the White House counsel."
A study by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York showed more then half of the 3,500 cleanup workers suffer from ear, nose, throat and lung problems.
In the early weeks of the cleanup "there was a problem" getting trucks to stop to be wetted down before transporting debris containing asbestos from the site.
The Inspector General's Office has mailed surveys to 5,000 New York residents with 43 questions about how the emergency was handled.
Meanwhile, interviews by the office show the emergency Web site was "useless to many until too late no electricity, no phone, no computer, etc."
The EPA was also criticized for lack of effectiveness in getting the public to take precautions before returning to their homes or offices. "Some missed subtleties of EPA's intended message [outdoor air only; long term only; outside ground zero only.]"
Questions concerning the EPA's evaluation of environmental conditions were first raised by former agency ombudsman Robert J. Martin. Mr. Martin was forced out of the EPA after the ombudsman's office was closed and duties merged with the Inspector General's Office.

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