2006-03-31 / Community

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

On September 11, 2001, the United States endured a terrorist assault much like that of December 7, 1941, sixty years later. But unlike the military raid of 1941, innocent civilian lives were targeted in addition to military and government buildings, and the lives of those who filled those halls.

Who knew, days later, we would have to battle with our own government, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Appointed by the George W. Bush administration, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman took the helm on January 21, 2001. Coming from a state with a long history of commercial and industrial sewage and air pollution, how could Whitman administer tough EPA laws while her own state was in such bad shape?

According to the Environmental Defense Council, New Jersey has some of the country's worst air pollution. By Environmental Protection Agency estimates, residents of the Garden State breathe air that is 1,600 times dirtier than allowed by federal safety guidelines. This translates to more asthma attacks, cancer risk and heart disease- and huge costs to taxpayers. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, asthma alone costs New Jersey residents $300 million annually in direct medical expenditures and indirect costs.

Cars account for approximately 80 percent of the airborne carcinogens in New Jersey and 40 percent of the chemicals that form smog or ozone pollution. On top of that pollution from power and industrial plants had been a longstanding problem as well. Riding down the New Jersey Turnpike, watching smoke stacks bellowing black, thick smoke are memorialized forever in my mind. The home of the EPA Administrator.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001 and the days and weeks that followed. On September 13, 2001, the EPA released a statement: "At the request of the New York City Department of Health, EPA and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been on the scene at the World Trade Center monitoring exposure to potentially contaminated dust and debris.

Monitoring and sampling conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday have been very reassuring about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants." What a lie.

Five and seven days later, driving west from Captree State Park on Ocean Parkway, we noticed a large plume of smoke hovering above Lower New York Bay and the Rockaway peninsula. On September 16, the EPA announced that the "majority of air and dust samples monitored at the crash site and in lower Manhattan do not indicate levels of concern for asbestos. The new samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern.

New OSHA data also indicates that indoor air quality in downtown buildings will meet standards." As a nurse, I knew differently. Residents and rescue workers at the scene knew differently too.

Now, five years later, all those I know who worked at ground zero are now retired or disabled with severe health problems. And this is only five years later.

On February 6, 2006, a federal judge scolded the Environmental Protection Agency and its former chief (Whitman) for not warning residents near the World Trade Center about health dangers following the September 11 attacks and said a lawsuit brought against them could proceed. What's worse is that the Bush White House intervened in the weeks following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to suppress warnings by the Environmental Protection Agency of health hazards associated with the toxic cloud of dust and debris created by the collapse of the World Trade Center, according to a report issued by the agency's inspector general. Those documents were in the hands of White House staff and deliberately manipulated and revised. Whitman had the audacity to stay with the EPA until May 2003, when she resigned.

She's been hiding since.

As recently as March 17, 2006, the EPA and the White House were at it again. A federal appeals court upheld an effort by New York and 14 other states to stop the Bush Administration from weakening the federal Clean Air Act. The Court threw out new EPA regulations that would have allowed aging power plants and other industrial polluters to make major modifications to their plants without improving their pollution controls.

Clearly, this decision is a major victory for clean air and public health. It will encourage industry to build new and cleaner facilities, instead of prolonging the life of old dirty plants.

In the true spirit of the speech FDR presented to Congress sixty years ago, "But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us." We must never forget the government's handling of EPA issues at ground zero and neighboring communities as well.

We must also be ready for a new fight: Governmental Terrorism.

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