Clinton blocks E.P.A. appointment over Downtown air


By Elizabeth O’Brien

After years of environmental activism in her Lower Manhattan community, Catherine McVay Hughes brought her concerns to a national stage last week when she traveled to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Hughes attended the confirmation hearing last Tuesday of Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, President Bush’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. At the hearing, Clinton blasted the agency’s handling of the environmental fallout from the World Trade Center disaster and threatened to block Leavitt’s nomination from the Senate until President Bush addressed her concerns.

“There is no doubt the E.P.A., at the White House’s direction, misrepresented the air quality” around ground zero, Clinton said during a conference call with reporters after the hearing. “I am not going to stand quietly by and merely vote one way or another when I think it’s imperative they take action.”

Clinton urged the E.P.A. to follow the steps recommended by its independent Office of Inspector General in a report released Aug. 22. The report revealed that the White House influenced what the agency told the public about air safety soon after the attacks of Sept.11, 2001. The E.P.A. “did not have sufficient data and analyses” to announce one week following the disaster that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe, the report concluded.

The inspector general recommended that the E.P.A. conduct testing to ensure that its Lower Manhattan residential cleanup program reduced residents’ risk of exposure to asbestos and other toxins of potential concern. The E.P.A. should also minimize the possibility of recontamination by taking a systematic approach to the clearning, the report said. In addition, the inspector general advised the E.P.A. to include workplaces in its cleanup, and to scientifically determine the extent of the contamination around ground zero instead of setting the seemingly arbitrary boundary of Canal St.

“We are living in dangerous times and we will have to trust and rely on the information the government gives us,” Clinton said.

The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that its residential cleaning program was effective. Mary Mears, an E.P.A. spokesperson, said that the agency disagreed with some aspects of the inspector general report.

“Based on data from the voluntary cleanup program, we don’t see the need for further cleanup,” Mears said on Friday.

As of Aug. 29, about one percent of the 3,433 residences that received E.P.A. cleaning and testing were found to have elevated levels of asbestos, according to data on the E.P.A. Web site.

The E.P.A. has not yet released data on the more thorough wipe samples it conducted in 250 randomly selected apartments, which tested for lead and other metals. Mears said the wipe test results would not be ready for weeks, or perhaps months. Previously, E.P.A. officials said the results would be released soon.

The inspector general report urges the E.P.A. administrator to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to assess what kind of ongoing testing might be needed for residences and workspaces in areas affected by the World Trade Center dust plume.

To assume the position of E.P.A. administrator, Leavitt needs approval from more than 50 percent of the Senate, a simple majority. But Clinton has said she will not allow the nomination to reach the Senate floor unless President Bush identified the White House officials referred to in the inspector general report, among other actions.

Hughes, whose apartment window overlooks the W.T.C. site, supported Clinton’s tough stance.

“It’s amazing that she takes this so seriously that she’s willing to put pressure on this E.P.A. nomination process,” Hughes said after she had returned to New York.

Hughes is the founder of AsthmaMoms, an independent online resource for asthma sufferers. As a member of Community Board 1, she has also tackled post-9/11 air quality concerns.

Hughes said she received an invitation from Clinton’s office on Wed., Sept. 17 to attend the hearing originally scheduled for Thurs., Sept. 18. The hearing was postponed until Sept. 23 because of Hurricane Isabel, and Hughes boarded a 5:24 a.m. Amtrak train that morning to make sure she got to Washington, D.C. on time.

Hughes did not testify at the hearing, but she held up a photo taken on Sept. 12, 2001 from the living room of her apartment one block east of the World Trade Center on Broadway. The picture shows a large dust cloud over ground zero and casts serious doubt on early E.P.A. accounts that the air in Lower Manhattan posed no health threats, Hughes said.

“It was a huge honor to be asked” to Washington, Hughes said. “It was exciting to be there.”