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Details on 9/11 air quality questioned
( 2003-08-27 11:20) (Washington Post)

In a sharply worded letter to President Bush, Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) yesterday demanded to know why New Yorkers were given incomplete information about the potential dangers from the polluted air caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

Clinton and Lieberman also asked Bush to take immediate action to ensure that the air in Lower Manhattan is safe to breathe.

The senators' letter was in response to a report released last week by the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency. That report concluded that agency warnings about the potential hazards from the World Trade Center towers' collapse were toned down by the White House. The IG noted that the EPA had not done some of the cleaning that it should have, and that all information about the cleanup had initially been vetted by the White House and its National Security Council.

In the report, the EPA inspector general said the agency was persuaded by the White House to omit cautionary language about the possible hazards from air pollutants such as asbestos, cadmium and lead after the World Trade Center towers fell. In addition, the report said the EPA omitted from early public statements guidance for the professional cleaning of indoor spaces, leading some people to return to their homes before they had been properly cleaned.

When the towers fell, their collapse created a large cloud of soot and debris that hung over Lower Manhattan for days. Emergency and construction workers spent weeks at the center of the destruction, and few wore respirators to protect themselves from the bad air.

Critics point to a statement by then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman on Sept. 18, 2001, that the air was safe for people to return to Lower Manhattan.

"If the allegations contained in the Inspector General's report are true, as they appear to be, then the conduct of this White House with regard to this issue was galling and beyond comprehension," the Clinton-Lieberman letter said.

"For the EPA to have provided anything but their best professional advice . . . is inexcusable; for the White House to have edited out that advice -- including information regarding the heightened risks that the air pollution might pose for young children -- is nothing but malfeasance."

Clinton has also asked for a Justice Department investigation into the White House handling of the information, a call that she repeated yesterday at a New York City Hall news conference with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY.) and others.

Nadler said in a later interview that the White House had potentially committed crimes by withholding the information.

"Someone in the White House consciously told people it was safe to go back to their homes [in Lower Manhattan] when they knew they didn't have the information to support that conclusion," Nadler said. "That's a reckless disregard for human life, and it has to be addressed."

When the inspector general's report came out last week, the White House said that the EPA information about the air quality in Manhattan was reviewed by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Its chairman, James L. Connaughton, defended the panel's actions by saying that, because the White House was dealing with such a major terrorist event, it wanted to make sure that information was communicated properly and by the correct officials at the right time.

Other administration spokesmen have called the inspector general's report "flawed" and said it unfairly set the EPA against the White House.

EPA Acting Administrator Marianne L. Horinko defended the agency. She said that there was no coverup and that the EPA's primary concern was to alert the public as quickly as possible about the potential hazardous health effects of the towers' collapse.

Nadler and other New York officials and public health activists have accused the EPA of underestimating the dangers posed by the contaminated air and of not doing enough to protect public health.

"We've been saying this for months and months, and now we're vindicated," Nadler said, referring to the inspector general's report.

"There's still a great deal the EPA could do to limit the harm to residents and the emergency crews who worked so long down there, but they just don't seem to get it," he said. "Unfortunately, many people are going to get lung diseases as a result."

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