Bush blocks funds for 9/11 rescue workers

At his Waco, Tex., CEO pep rally on the economy, President Bush announced he intended to enforce “spending restraint” by blocking a $5.1 billion emergency spending bill passed by Congress which included $90 million for long-term health monitoring of World Trade Center (WTC) rescue workers and volunteers who were exposed to a catastrophe with potential long-term health and environmental consequences.

The Bush administration also slapped down firefighters and veterans, rejecting $250 million for firefighting equipment and training and $275 million to reduce the backlog of patients at veterans’ medical centers.

Reaction was swift and strong. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, “Now the President is backtracking on the commitment to America’s heroes and he ought to be ashamed.”

International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold Schaitberger wrote to Bush after the announcement, “Quite frankly, I would be dishonest if I did not convey our anger, concern and growing doubt about your commitment to us. I will not in good conscience allow our membership to be used as foils. No one, not even the President, has the right to pontificate about his or her commitment and respect for firefighters while ignoring our legitimate needs.”

Richard Santos, national commander of the American Legion, said, “More than 300,000 veterans new to the VA system are on waiting lists, some more than one year long, for the initial medical exams they need in order to qualify for prescription drug benefits.” Bush pledged his support to the Legion’s national convention as a candidate in 2000. “Now, we feel we’ve been let down,” said Santos. “A verbal promise in front of 6,000 people is something you have to keep.”

Don Carson, director of Hazmat Program of the International Union of Operating Engineers, who worked at Ground Zero from Sept. 15 till it was cleared, told the World, “The union handed out over 12,000 respirators. We did independent air testing which was shared with the EPA You may not know for years the effects of working on the pile.”

“It was a horrific job,” he said. “Every day that goes by people begin to forget what happened. We’re tired of being called heroes. We want respect for the job that we do. If they are serious about homeland security then they have to do the training and the health monitoring.”

Many health and environmental protection specialists have characterized Ground Zero as a catastrophe without precedent. The WTC structure, furnishings, office equipment and supplies were reduced to a burning 16-acre heap that smoldered for weeks at very high temperatures.

Pulverized concrete, glass, steel, zinc and asbestos were hurled into the air not only in the immediate area but also into Brooklyn. Hazardous materials from the wreckage were transported through New York Harbor to the Staten Island landfill, exposing untold numbers of people to asbestos and other toxins.

Pawel Kedzior of Local 78 Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborers, whose members worked day and night at Ground Zero, commented, “It’s disgusting that the president of this country wants to cut off money for health checkups.”

Kedzior continued, “We got independent results at Ground Zero from tests run to monitor the air quality. For obvious reasons businesses in NY were scared to do the test because they were worried about jobs in the future so we had to get testing done from outside.” He said, “The pile was one huge pile of toxins.”

With the emergency funding, an initial screening program of 8,500 WTC rescue workers would have been expanded to include all 18,000 who worked or volunteered at Ground Zero.

Jonathan Bennett, NY Committee for Occupational Safety and Heath public affairs director, said if the funds are not restored tens of thousands who need to be monitored will not be eligible for treatment programs. “If they come down with illnesses 20 years from now ... and are not watched as a statistical group their medical treatment will be affected ... Workers simply won’t get medical care they need if they come down with diseases years later.”

Mario Cilento, New York State AFL-CIO communications director, told the World the labor federation would be meeting with members of Congress after Labor Day to demand action. The WTC rescue workers are owed peace of mind by the government, he said.

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org