Testimony regarding emergency response to environmental disasters

By Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D.





Date:  October 15, 2002


To:  Duane Nystrom, Editorial Director, Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works

Subject: Christie Whitman’s recent Testimony to Congress


I have gone over a portion of Administrator Whitman’s testimony with an eye towards the accuracy of her statements, and provide testimony to answer and rebut some of them.  For simplicity I am inserting my testimony in bold blue after each paragraph of her testimony.





             As soon as the first plane hit the North Tower, EPA activated its emergency response personnel from its Regional office in lower Manhattan.  Before anyone knew the tragic consequences of the attack, EPA’s responders were headed to the site to monitor the cloud of smoke and dust.


            EPA immediately dispatched monitoring teams to test the ambient air quality around the World Trade Center site (WTC) and as far away as Jersey City, New Jersey.  On the first day, tests were taken for asbestos, lead and a class of chemicals associated with fires and fuel called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  In most instances on the first day, EPA did not detect the presence of these pollutants.  In some instances, we found them in very low levels - -  well below a level that would be considered a health threat. 


In future environmental disasters, it is critically important for EPA to frequently publicize the character and quantity of the monitoring effort.  This publicity should be in the media and in greater detail, on EPA's website.  Information should include (at a minimum):  The number of personnel involved in monitoring each day, the location of monitoring sites, specific methods of testing, the range of pollutants being tested for, the frequency of tests, wind and dispersion data.  In addition to this information, it is critically important for all the sampling and analysis data, air quality standards to which the data are compared, and, if no standards are available and new levels of concern are developed, the complete rationale, with references, to be made available on the internet.  After the WTC environmental disaster, EPA was still refusing to provide data to elected officials in October citing national security.  This is bogus, and should never be used as an excuse.  EPA also refused to make copies of the full dataset available via email or internet after it stopped using the national security ruse.


EPA performed environmental sampling of debris, as well as air monitoring and air sampling in the work zone and support areas.  This data was used to ensure that health and safety plans were implemented to minimize the exposure to hazardous chemicals of the responders doing the firefighting, search and rescue efforts and criminal investigations.


EPA did not detect these pollutants on the second day?  What methods of sampling and testing was used?  What was the detection limit of the tests chosen?  Were these the most sensitive tests available?  Published studies and EPA's own data shows that these and other pollutants were found in the air, some in very large quantities weeks and months after 9/11 (I attach a study by Paul Lioy, et. al. of Rutgers).  EPA was shown to have used the less sensitive PCM testing for asbestos, when it should have used TEM.  Grab sampling of air for a few minutes while the wind is moving the plume in the opposite direction is also not valid.  Longer samples under the plume should have always been taken.


Again, the point about not being a health threat is in contention.  What kind of health threat is EPA concerned about?  Immediate death only?  Isn't the combination/synergy of non-lethal quantities of pollutants of importance for long-term health impacts?  Is EPA ignoring all the new cases of asthma and other diseases by those exposed that have still not abated?  For the future, it is necessary, once again, to make all sampling information public.  Further, it is important to sample for long enough and choose areas that would be expected to have the worst contamination or air quality.  EPA should also not ignore indoor contamination or air quality as it did in the WTC case.  The cleanup of the indoors should have commenced immediately, as did the cleanup of the WTC site itself.  Evacuations, which were enforced for several days, should have been extended until both indoors and outdoor areas had been abated for asbestos, since the entire area was showered with friable asbestos (and this was known immediately).


Why would there have been a need to protect workers from the health effects of hazardous materials if there were no health threat as stated earlier?  What were the results of the health and safety plans, specifically?  How many of the responders wore properly fitted respirators on each day?  It is well known that many did not have respirators, and others who did, did not wear them.  This quantified information should be made public in any disaster.  How else will anything be learned? 


EPA has prepared documents “Lessons Learned” and 3 risk assessments that have been requested via FOIA.  These have still not been forthcoming.  What are they hiding?


            Over the next few days, EPA also sampled dust and air in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey and at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island.  As to be expected, there were some standards exceeded for certain chemicals within the fires, but this rarely occurred outside of the World Trade Center site.


This paragraph contradicts her previous paragraph.  Were standards exceeded or not?  Which standards are we talking about?  Are they applicable to the situation at hand?  EPA needs to be conducting considerable research to determine safe standards for combinations of pollutants, indoors as well as outdoors.  EPA needs to determine better methods of measuring indoor air pollution and reservoirs of contamination. 


EPA sampled drinking water from the distribution system and analyzed samples from water towers on top of buildings.  The Agency also sampled water from the Hudson and East Rivers and wastewater from a sewage treatment plant in Brooklyn after several rainfalls to check for pollutants running off the World Trade Center site.  EPA did not find any levels that posed either human health or ecological risks.  Over the course of ten months, the Agency took 24,500 samples of air, dust, drinking water and river water.  Because many were analyzed for more than one pollutant, these samples yielded more than 212,500 results. 


Regarding vacuuming of dust from streets, press reports a few months ago showed that the contractors were not using HEPA vacuums to remove dust for several days.  Further, NYC Department of Sanitation street sweepers, not equipped with vacuums, were employed to "clean" the streets.  There were times, documented, where the street sweepers were sweeping dry, and blowing dust into peoples' eyes and noses.  EPA should have been in complete control of the situation.  In the future, EPA needs to take control of state and local "cleaning" and monitoring to assure that inadequate or dangerous procedures are not used.  That EPA erected a large tent for cleaning the workers was laudable.  Why didn't it also erect a containment structure to contain contaminants from the barge loading activity?  This would not have been difficult.  Speaking of containment, and since prevention of contamination is always better than remediation, why did EPA not work to put the fires out as soon as possible?  Once it was determined there was no hope for survivors, EPA should have worked with other agencies to block the subterranean tunnels, and covered the pile to suffocate the fire.  Allowing highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants to be generated for 100 days needlessly exposed the public to elevated and dangerous air quality.  In the future, EPA should work hard to contain and prevent further pollution in the cases of environmental disasters.  If the methodology does not exist, it should be developed.


             The Agency vacuumed dust from the streets, parks and other public spaces.  EPA took the lead in establishing and running worker and truck wash stations in both Lower Manhattan and on Staten Island to prevent dust from migrating from the recovery site.  In November, EPA erected what is thought to be the largest worker wash tent in the world - a 31,000 square-foot heated structure at which workers could vacuum, wash off, shower, and get a hot meal. 


Regarding the water samples, what levels are considered to be a threat to human or ecological health?  Is EPA categorically saying that the elevated levels of a combination of pollutants in the water are not additive or synergistic in effect on human or ecological health?  And, just as EPA has learned that dust settling indoors can be reentrained, causing long-term exposure to contaminants, the same can be said of contaminants that were flushed out to the Hudson and East rivers via the storm drains.  When the river bottom is stirred up due to storms or dredging, is there no ecological threat?   New research is needed to clarify and answer these questions, and provide more protective standards, as well as point towards better methods of "cleaning" contaminated areas.  Merely moving contaminants from streets to water bodies is not cleaning.  EPA should make public, on its website, all samples, immediately, and in future disasters, as soon as the analyses are complete.


            EPA has responded to the ongoing concerns of lower Manhattan residents with the announcement of a residential indoor dust cleanup program.  This program was developed with assistance from New York City, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other members of the Indoor Air Task Force.  Since the announcement of the program, EPA has met with resident and tenant organizations, environmental and community groups, community boards and many city, state, and Federal elected officials to refine the program.  On June 3, EPA activated a hotline and online form for residents to sign up for cleaning and testing or to get their homes tested for asbestos.  EPA began testing homes in August and began cleaning in September.


EPA is lauding itself for responding to residents' complaints about indoor air quality by instituting a voluntary program 9 months after the disaster.  This is preposterous.  Instead, and in future disasters, EPA should assure, by thorough testing of ALL indoor spaces, nooks and crannies, that air quality is safe and that there are no remaining reservoirs of contamination (i.e., contaminated dust) BEFORE permitting residents to return and businesses, schools, etc. to reopen.  EPA should not leave it to local authorities, to landlords or to tenants to determine if air quality is safe or contaminant reservoirs are present.  That EPA permitted the city agencies to require landlords and tenants to clean hazardous wastes from indoor spaces using inadequate cleaning tools and without proper protective equipment should be illegal if it isn't already. 


EPA's indoor cleaning program's educational materials do not include any information to explain why EPA reversed its repeated statements that the air was safe, so downtown residents have no motivation to sign up.  EPA's educational methods are paltry in scope, not using the broadcast or print media to explain why cleanup is necessary.  Educational campaigns should not only be informational, but also motivational or they will not be effective.  Multiple approaches (various media, outreach methods) are necessary for success.  Each person should be reached at least once, and by different means (people are busy, and can forget).  It is well known that in order to implement behavior change successfully, there should be no inconvenience or cost involved.  EPA has not made this clear in its educational materials (i.e. that temporary lodging will be provided and that replacement cost for carpets, drapes and upholstered furniture will be provided).  That EPA has assumed that ALL businesses have done asbestos abatements is unfortunate, and incorrect.    Office workers are still being exposed to contamination.  EPA has not made any effort to test office space or make the results public. 


All these changes must happen in this and future disasters.  There is much work to do to prepare for future environmental disasters.  As it stands now, if there is another terrorist attack, the same procedures will be followed, despite all the myriad of things EPA did wrong, or allowed to happen.  Even if there is never another environmental disaster resulting from a terrorist attack, natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, will still happen, and can result in fires and building collapses (just imagine an 8.5 earthquake right under San Francisco).  We need to be ready.