Preventing Another 9/11 First Responders Tragedy

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Preventing Another 9/11 First Responders Tragedy

Irresponsible EPA Corrosive Dust Standards Uncorrected a Decade after WTC


Washington, DC — On September 11, 2001, “First Responders” to the World Trade Center conflagration and nearby residents waded into dust so corrosive that it resulted in chemical burns to their respiratory system.  These New York City police and firefighters were needlessly sacrificed due to woefully lax U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards which remain in effect but need correction, according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

After the horrific World Trade Center (WTC) implosion, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman assured a worried nation and terrified residents that the airborne hazardous substances at the site were “below background levels” and no worse than a “typical smoggy day.”  She could not have been more wrong.

WTC First Responders were subjected to dust so caustic as to cause respiratory disabilities and deaths.  Yet, if a similar scenario occurred today, the same results would recur.  That is because EPA misapplied the international corrosivity standard and then systematically failed to test and communicate the caustic properties of WTC dust.  As a result, the EPA standard is ten times more lax than the presumed safe levels for alkaline corrosives set by the United Nations (UN).

Despite persistent efforts by one of its senior chemists, EPA has not reconsidered its mistake.  Dr. Cate Jenkins, a determined 31-year agency employee, charges that the refusal to tighten the standard is fueled by both a fear of liability and industry pressure because the same health dangers, though on a smaller scale, attend workers and spectators at most building demolitions and people living around cement plants.

“This petition will right a monstrous wrong left uncorrected by official gross negligence,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who co-filed the petition today with Dr. Jenkins.  “It is past time for EPA to ensure that the heroic sacrifice of the WTC First Responders is never repeated.”

The petition demands that EPA dramatically tighten its corrosivity standard so that responders would be alerted to use personal protection equipment to prevent lung respiratory damage.  The petition would bring the U.S. into line with standards in force in the European Union and Canada, and adopted by the UN.

Robert Dellinger, one of the responsible EPA officials, explained the agency position in 2007:

“It seems that agency made a policy call to exempt these wastes by raising the pH level of the corrosivity characteristic.  This was done in public manner, no law suit was filed, no petitions have been received asking us to change pH to 11.5.”

“It is not the public’s responsibility to detect falsifications by EPA, nor should they have to submit petitions or bring law suits to force EPA to perform its duty to act honestly in protecting the public,” Dr. Jenkins said.  “Now that we have petitioned EPA to correct the standard, the agency has lost even this flimsy excuse for inaction.”

After raising this issue to the EPA Inspector General, then Congress, Dr. Jenkins was isolated, harassed and ultimately removed from her position this year by EPA based upon a claim of threatening behavior.  Dr. Jenkins is soft-spoken, petite, and suffered from polio as a child.  The charge that she intimidated her 6-foot male supervisor has been upheld at a preliminary level, however.

“Unfortunately, senior EPA managers responsible for failure to protect the First Responders are the ones behind Dr. Jenkins’ removal,” added Dinerstein, one of the PEER attorneys representing Dr. Jenkins in legal challenges to restore her to her position at EPA.  “The only thing Dr. Jenkins is guilty of is not suffering fools gladly.”

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