9/11: Mourn the dead, organize for the living

News Analysis



The first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was marked by vigils, rallies, marches and memorial services. But those who live and work in lower Manhattan – as well as the 30,000 workers who cleaned the World Trade Center (WTC) site – have many unanswered concerns and questions about their health and environment.

The Bush administration’s rhetoric about “the Heroes of Sept. 11” has been a cover for inaction on the real needs of the victims. Even the small step of increasing the funding for monitoring the long-term health of 18,000 rescue workers by a health care consortium was vetoed by the Bush administration just before the anniversary.

Siginificant evidence has surfaced about how the the WTC collapse had been mishandled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The mishandling of the crisis was also documented in a “white paper” issued by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district includes lower Manhattan.

In the days following Sept. 11, EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, dragged her feet in testing the air quality in lower Manhattan. Business Week reported that “experts argue the EPA’s standards, which are often heavily influenced by industry, are much too high, especially in an event of such unprecedented magnitude that flooded the enviroment with so many contaminants simultaneously.”

On Aug. 14, the Daily News stated that a report by the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general that Earth Technology, Inc., a private contractor hired to do asbestos clean-up at Ground Zero, did not use HEPA filters on its vacuum trucks for three weeks.

This three-week lapse was revealed in an internal investigation into whether Whitman was involved in a conflict of interest. She was accused of protecting the stock portfolio of her husband, who had holdings in two companies on Wall Street, by making assurances of the air quality was safe.

“Though the failure to use the filters was in the report,” a government source was reported as saying, “it was buried.”

Sigrún Davídsdóttir, a writer for The Guardian, a London newspaer, reported that the Bush administration also decided not to implement the National Contingency Plan (NCP), a plan to deal with national disasters, as a way to avoid the costs of the toxic clean-up.

Last October, the EPA ruled that the New York City Department of Health would oversee the clean-up of indoor sites in the WTC area, including workplaces and residences, making the individual owners responsible, without government regulated clean-up for asbestos and other toxins from the 16-acre Ground Zero.

On Sept. 9, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control said that hundreds of firefighters were suffering from respiratory problems. City officials said they expect that 500 firefighters might eventually qualify for early retirement because of chronic problems.

Other reports are beginning to show that truck drivers who helped remove the debris from Ground Zero and workers at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), a school two blocks away, are reporting “acute respiratory symptoms.”

A study of ironworkers has not been completed yet.

“These two studies are more troubling evidence that the occupational health hazards created by the attack were much worse than officials would acknowledge,” said New York City OSHA Executive Director Joel Shufro.

“Workers needed protection from the dust and the fumes, and instead they got reassurances,” he added. “Those high rates of respiratory symptoms among Ground Zero workers is a clear indication that they didn’t have adequate respiratory protection.”

The incidence of symptoms at BMCC, Shufro said, “strongly indicates that the decision to reopen the school Sept. 26 was premature. It seems clear that the workers were exposed to both physical conditions and emotional ones that made them sick.”

“Just like others, the EPA did not want to believe there was any problem and thought the problem might just go away if it was ignored,” said Joel Kupferman, an environmental lawyer in New York. Kupferman believes that the directions came from Washington, reflecting the political wish to downplay the effect of the attack.

“There were people working for federal government and the city who wanted to wear masks at work in Manhattan, but they were told not to do it because it would scare others. There was an unwillingness to admit that anything could interfere with the American way of life. And the real estate and insurance business has huge interests in downplaying the health effects,” he says.

But all caution that long-term study is needed to gauge the longer term impact. But Nadler told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s a major health catastrophe. “We’re allowing it to happen, and it’s immoral because people are going to die from this.”

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org