GAO report: EPA misled public on Ground Zero health risks

From the New York Times, June 21:

WASHINGTON, June 20 — Federal environmental officials misled Lower Manhattan residents about the extent of contamination in their condominiums and apartments after the collapse of the World Trade Center, according to a preliminary report released on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

According to the report, made public during a Senate subcommittee hearing, the Environmental Protection Agency did not accurately report the results of a residential cleanup program in 2002 and 2003. More than 4,000 apartments in Lower Manhattan were professionally decontaminated in that program, and the agency reported that only a “very small” number of air samples taken in those residences showed unsafe levels of asbestos.

But the agency failed to explain that 80 percent of the air samples were taken after the apartments had already been cleaned.

“That was misleading,” said John B. Stephenson, director of the natural resources and environment division of the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress. He spoke after testifying at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is reviewing the government’s response to environmental and health issues at ground zero.

The report concluded that the misleading information had left residents with an erroneous impression about risk. As a result, only 295 residents and apartment building owners asked to take part in a new residential cleanup program before enrollment ended in March. That number represented just a small portion of the 20,000 apartments eligible to participate.

“Residents are understandably reluctant to participate in what they consider to be a waste of time,” said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the subcommittee hearing. Senator Clinton, who has been sharply critical of the federal response to 9/11-related health issues, said the data in the report offered “a very different picture from what the White House would like us to believe.”

Susan P. Bodine, assistant administrator of the environmental agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, declined to comment on the report. “I would have to go back and check the numbers,” she said in an interview.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first to look into the administration’s environmental response to the trade center disaster since Democrats took control of Congress. Christie Whitman, the agency’s administrator in 2001, is expected to testify at a committee hearing in the House on Monday about her handling of the disaster and the way she communicated the level of risk to the public.

Also at Wednesday’s hearing, Senator Clinton announced that a Senate appropriations subcommittee had included $55 million in the 2008 budget proposal for screening and treatment of people exposed to ground zero dust.

The money would, for the first time, cover residents of Lower Manhattan. The measure would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a long-term screening and treatment plan.

See our last posts on 9-11’s hidden victims.