Learning from the E.P.A.’s mistakes

The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged last week that “without a doubt” officials made “mistakes” protecting the Lower Manhattan environment after the 9/11 attack released tons of toxic dust from the World Trade Center.

But the E.P.A.’s official response to a damming report from the agency’s independent Inspector General concluded that the E.P.A. did the “best it could in the face of chaos and catastrophe.”

That self-serving characterization is far too forgiving and we endorse the calls of Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Hillary Clinton for Congressional hearings to look into the E.P.A.’s acknowledged mistakes. The E.P.A. didn’t bother to mention what mistakes they thought they made, so perhaps that would be a good opening question for Clinton or Nadler.

Some of the agency’s errors have been quite clear to others and us for some time.

The statement a week after the attack by Christie Whitman, who was then the E.P.A. administrator, that the air was safe to breathe was based on insufficient information and influenced by White House pressure to reopen the financial markets and prevent panic, the inspector general concluded.

Whitman’s departure from the E.P.A. however, is far from good news for anyone who cares about the environment. She looks like a tree-hugger next to just about every other Bush appointee to an environmental position and it seems more likely that now the Bush team will take us even further away from such things as cleaner air and cleaner water.

After Sept. 11, the E.P.A. let a year pass before it took on its responsibility and began cleaning and testing apartments for asbestos, and in 250 sample cases, tests for other toxins. Mayor Giuliani did not press the E.P.A. to take responsibility for the interior cleanup in 2001 and he bears some of the blame for letting the feds pass the buck to the city when New York was ill prepared to take on additional burdens.

After taking so long to institute the apartment cleanup program, the E.P.A. has inexcusably avoided common-sense measures to make the program more effective. It has sent out letters to residents that require an advanced science degree to understand. In cases where they have found lead or asbestos in apartments, the E.P.A. has not warned residents down the hall who did not authorize E.P.A. tests or cleaners. In cases where tests showed high levels of dangerous chemicals after a cleanup was done, the E.P.A. has not indicated any interest in investigating its cleaning contractors to see if they were doing anything wrong.

Given Whitman’s mischaracterization in Sept. 2001, the agency’s bungled cleanup program and the I.G. report, it’s understandable why many Downtowners feel “the E.P.A. has been lying all along.”

That is clearly an exaggeration. In the fog of the fall of 2001, it is easy to forget what the E.P.A. was saying. Within a few weeks after the attack, the E.P.A. was warning people that it was best to assume W.T.C. dust contained dangerous chemicals and to have it professionally cleaned. Officials should have taken responsibility for making sure the cleaning was being done properly, but the E.P.A. was not saying the dust was safe. Although there was not evidence to say the air was safe to breathe in mid-September as Whitman did, air monitors scattered around Lower Manhattan were showing levels of asbestos considered to be safe fairly soon after. Many of us could still smell the air into 2002, but that doesn’t mean it was dangerous.

Does that mean there is a guarantee that Downtowners won’t suffer health effects because of 9/11? No. There’s no way to be sure what the long term effects will be until we get there. But there are ways to minimize risks.

The E.P.A. should cooperate fully with Congressional hearings. The purpose is clear. Figure out the extent of all of the agency’s mistakes. Correct any problems that are still correctable in Lower Manhattan. Determine all that can be learned from these mistakes and figure out the best way to prevent the same mistakes from ever being made again.

Because there is one thing we can virtually guarantee: We will face an environmental emergency again.