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Trust Left in the Dust

August 28, 2003

With the Bush administration giving industry a big win Wednesday on power plant air pollution rules, it's worth reconsidering how politics also affected environmental policy in the chaotic weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2001, most New Yorkers would have understood if federal officials had admitted begin confused over the health risk from the massive dust and debris clouds swirling through Manhattan. Turns out, scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency believed the dust was dangerous. But that conclusion, it now appears, wouldn't fly at the White House.

As the World Trade Center towers crumbled, hundreds of tons of smoke and concrete dust choked the air in Lower Manhattan. With gray-white powder coating trees outside and blanketing kitchen tables inside nearby apartments, it was no surprise that rescue workers and residents complained that their eyes stung and their chests burned for months.

Many still report respiratory problems; thousands of New Yorkers worry whether their exposure to toxic chemicals will cause cancers or birth defects. The EPA played a key role in assessing health hazards from the unprecedented amount of airborne chemicals, which included highly toxic dioxin, asbestos and lead. The agency continues to oversee cleanup.

Yet, according to last week's report from the agency's own watchdog, the White House began pressuring EPA scientists to soft-pedal their concerns days after the towers collapsed. Political considerations trumped credible scientific concerns. For instance, a draft EPA news release for Sept. 13, 2001, warned that "even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation." But, by the time it passed through the White House Council on Environmental Quality, it soothingly declared that this "short-term, low-level exposure ... is unlikely to cause significant health effects." Another draft, for Sept. 16, was similarly toned down to say asbestos levels were "not a cause for public concern."

"National security concerns and the desire to reopen Wall Street" explain the rewriting, the EPA's inspector general said. Explain, perhaps, but hardly justify deliberately misleading the public.

Glossing over risks is becoming a bad habit at the White House. Earlier this year, White House aides ordered outgoing EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to tone down her already tepid warning in a report on the perils of global warming. She instead dropped all mention of climate change because, she said, the White House-approved language was "pablum."

The EPA, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies, is hardly immune from politics.

Steady pressure from industry and the White House, for instance, prompted Wednesday's EPA rollback, allowing 17,000 older power plants, oil refineries and chemical plants to make extensive upgrades without having to install new pollution control equipment. But each time politics wins out over valid scientific concerns, it erodes voters' trust -- and their health.

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