Shockingly, Congress let the Zadroga Act expire at the start of this month. The law provided assistance to the numerous first responders and bystanders who have developed health problems related to the terrorist attack in New York City on September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, this blunder is only the latest in a long line of missteps by the federal government in its response to health concerns stemming from the 9/11 attacks.
To really understand, we have to start back on that day, as the string of problems began in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The collapse of the World Trade Center released thousands of tons of asbestos, glass, concrete, and other caustic pollutants in the form of dust. Air quality was a significant concern as hundreds of first responders worked non-stop at the Ground Zero site and thousands of neighborhood residents sought to return to their homes.
Within days, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began making public statements and issuing press releases claiming the air was “safe to breathe” and there were no concerns about asbestos, lead, or other contaminants. Years later, an investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the EPA did not have enough data to make such broad statements about the air quality.
EPA’s misleading public statements gave first responders and others a false sense of security. As a result, many in the area didn’t use protective equipment such as respirators and other safety gear that could have reduced their exposure to dangerous materials and saved some of their lives in the long run. The EPA statements made a terrible situation far worse by failing to properly warn the public about the potential health hazards at Ground Zero.
As it turns out, the EPA had originally drafted the statements to include warnings of potentially dangerous air pollution. But before being published, the statements passed through the National Security Council and the Council on Environmental Quality, and these agencies stripped away the warnings, downplayed health concerns, and added more reassuring language.
The EPA maintains that those reassuring public statements were technically accurate for the larger region of lower Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn. The agency also asserts that, separate from the press releases and statements, it recommended that workers at Ground Zero use protective equipment. The agency doesn’t seem to consider itself responsible for any public confusion or misunderstanding about the air quality at Ground Zero.
As if these early misleading statements weren’t bad enough, the EPA compounded its error by attacking agency officials who sought to bring the truth about the air quality to light.
Robert Martin was the EPA Ombudsman at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and he spoke out loudly against the EPA response on air quality. Martin launched an investigation into the EPA’s mischaracterization of the air quality at Ground Zero and held his own hearings—hearings which some EPA officials refused to attend. Martin’s previous investigations had already put the Ombudsman office on shaky ground with the agency and EPA was working to transfer the entire office into the OIG. Martin had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the move. But in April 2002, while Martin was testifying at a New York legislative hearing on EPA’s actions around Ground Zero, a U.S. District Court dismissed his case on grounds that he had not exhausted administrative remedies. The next day the EPA announced that the transfer of the Ombudsman office to OIG would be effective the very next day. Martin returned from New York to find that his files had been seized and his locks had been changed. Rather than being forced into a role he believed crippled both his independence and the ability to hold the EPA accountable, Martin resigned in protest. Thus, an ongoing independent investigation into EPA’s misleading air quality claims came to an abrupt halt.
Later, Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist and longtime whistleblower at the EPA, raised concerns that the dust in the air around Ground Zero was dangerously corrosive and that the EPA knowingly misled the public. In response, the EPA attempted to silence and discredit her. In 2010, the EPA fired Jenkins for allegedly threatening her supervisor with physical harm. In 2012, the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered she be reinstated with back pay because the agency had denied Jenkins due process in the matter. The following year EPA reinitiated efforts to fire Jenkins under the same charges but addressing the procedural issues. In April 2015, a Department of Labor administrative law judge ruled that that Jenkins was a whistleblower and the victim of retaliation.
Jenkins also filed an official petition to change the EPA limit for safe alkaline corrosives, which, due to a mistake, is ten times more lax than the standards used by Canada, the European Union, and the United Nations. The EPA promises to respond to that petition by March 2016.
Despite mounting evidence that first responders and others were exposed to dangerous levels of hazardous materials around Ground Zero and were beginning to suffer from a range of serious illnesses as a result, Congress failed for years to pass legislation addressing the problem. In 2006 the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was introduced to provide medical assistance to Ground Zero emergency responders and recovery and cleanup workers. The legislation was named after a New York City police officer, who, after spending hundreds of hours at Ground Zero, developed a respiratory disease that later killed him. But Congress sat on the bill for four years over concerns about the costs. Finally, responding to growing public outrage, Congress passed a version of the bill in 2010 which limited funding to just five years.
Those five years ran out last month.
Despite bipartisan support for reauthorization and a campaign on Capitol Hill by more than a hundred first responders led by television personality Jon Stewart, Congress once again failed to renew the funding and the law officially expired.
Today, the more than 70,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program are left to wonder when their care will stop. The program has some remaining allocated funds that will allow it to continue to operate in the short term. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that the program "will begin to face significant operational challenges" by February 2016 if funding is not reauthorized.
An accountable government would take responsibility for having contributed to these health problems and establish a comprehensive and dependable program. Instead, what we have gotten are misleading statements, impeding efforts of officials seeking to bring more information to light, and repeated delays in providing basic health support and assistance to the victims. We promised to never forget, but many in Congress seem to find it inconvenient to remember. Those courageous first responders deserve better.