EPA's Dirty Bombs 

Connecting the dots between a New York terrorist attack and a Montana mining disaster

Some of the destruction terrorists inflicted on Sept. 11, 2001, was immediately obvious, even if you were watching it on television thousands of miles away in Montana. The twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Thousands of people died.

What was less obvious was the collapsing towers' collateral function as a sort of dirty bomb: pulverizing or igniting all the hazardous substances of a small city, the poisons contained in computers, fluorescent light bulbs, windows and construction materials, and blasting them through the city's streets with the percussive force of two falling skyscrapers.

Post-9/11 photos show residents of Manhattan covered in layers of white ash so thick they look like ghosts. Residents in neighborhoods near Ground Zero reported inches of dust in their cars and homes. A plume of smoke rose from the burning debris for weeks. But on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the towers fell, EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman told New Yorkers their air was safe to breathe.

Asbestos, some of which came from W.R. Grace & Company's vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont., was one of the many substances released by the attacks.

As the towers fell, Libby had just begun to come to terms with its own tragedy. The EPA had begun considering the town for Superfund designation earlier in 2001, following revelations that thousands had been sickened and hundreds had died from asbestos exposure.

But while the EPA seemed at last to recognize the dangers of asbestos exposure in Libby, it ignored those same dangers in New York, apparently at the direction of the White House.

The discrepancy has given ammunition to activists who want a more thorough cleanup in New York, and it also offered a lifeline to W. R. Grace, which was arguing for less stringent standards on asbestos exposure and cleanup, in Libby and in Manhattan. The discrepancy also reveals an EPA of two minds about asbestos cleanup, and the mind that prevails—for better or for worse—could set regulatory precedent for a whole host of toxic baddies.

History Repeating

It's almost eerie.

Anyone familiar with the stories of Libby's victims, poisoned for years while working for and living in the shadow of W.R. Grace's asbestos-laden vermiculite mine, could see the similarities with New Yorkers enveloped by toxic clouds from the collapsing WTC towers.

The following quotes, from people exposed to the dust and smoke that settled over Manhattan for days after 9/11, were published by New York Daily News on July 30, 2006:

"We never expected anything to go wrong. Every day, we were told the air was safe to breathe."

"I can't even walk up a flight of stairs. I've got three kids and can't afford to take time off work, but I'm worried about the future, about my wife and my children."

"Condensation from breathing turned the mask into mud. It was worse to breathe with it on."

"Christie Whitman's EPA people lied: They said the air was safe."

Now look at these quotes from Libby residents, as reported by Andrew Schneider on Nov. 18, 1999, when he broke the news of Libby's asbestos problems in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"No one ever told us that stuff could kill you."

"We did have respirators, but the dust was so heavy most of the time that they clogged up within minutes."

"We did have discussions on the dust. But the story was always the same: 'It's just a nuisance dust. It's not a problem.' But (for years) the company never told us it contained asbestos or anything dangerous."

That echo you hear is the sound of history repeating itself.

NY, Meet Libby

The parallels and relationships between New York City and Libby go far deeper than the experiences of their respective dead and their respective survivors. They outline a tug-of-war over the EPA's regulation of toxic substances that may affect the health of the entire country.

People who cleaned up the wreckage of Ground Zero in Manhattan, as well as people who worked and lived in the vicinity, say the EPA lied to them about post-9/11 health hazards. Since the attacks, about 70,000 people have complained of illness to the World Trade Center Health Registry.

Since at least the 1980s, there has been debate over exactly how asbestos should be treated.

One school of thought says there's no known safe level of exposure to the substance.

According to the U.S. Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980, "Medical science has not established any minimum level of exposure to asbestos fibers which is considered to be safe to individuals exposed to the fibers." It still hasn't.

The EPA itself has reiterated this statement many times. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, is currently sponsoring a bill that would completely ban the use of asbestos in products sold in the United States.

The problem with setting stringent standards for asbestos exposure, or banning it outright, is that it happens to be one of the building blocks of modern civilization.

Asbestos exhibits several valuable characteristics: It's lightweight, can be woven into cloth, has a tensile strength greater than steel, and, perhaps most importantly, is fireproof. As a result, asbestos has been used to line brake pads, fireproof buildings and clothes, and insulate homes, among many other applications.

Asbestos is also, to a degree remarkably unknown, a hazard to human health.

Nonetheless, when fears over the dangers of asbestos first arose in the 1970s, many companies abandoned its use for one of its chief applications: fireproofing.

According to a July 2001 article in The New York Times, W.R. Grace responded to asbestos fears by developing a product called Monokote in 1970. Monokote, made with Libby vermiculite, is the name given to several formulations of a fireproofing spray Grace sold for use in the construction of large buildings, and presented as asbestos-free.

According to the Times, Monokote was sort of a miracle product, both for engineers in need of fireproofing materials, and for Grace's bottom line. But as the Times documents, Grace knew Monokote contained asbestos, about 1 percent by weight. Grace hid this fact as long as it could before successfully lobbying the EPA, which was considering a outright ban on asbestos in the early 1970s, to declare that only products containing more than 1 percent asbestos contained any asbestos at all. This exception, which became known as "the Grace rule," allowed the company to continue marketing Monokote as asbestos-free.

The concept—that products containing no more than 1 percent asbestos did not contain asbestos at all—was in line with industry's main talking point, which was diametrically opposed to the "no safe exposure" theory. Asbestos, its marketers claimed, was dangerous only in large quantities and over long periods of time, and only when it's actually airborne.

With its supposedly safe asbestos levels, Monokote was used in 60 to 80 percent of the steel-frame buildings constructed during the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, including the bottom 40 floors of the main World Trade Center buildings and all of World Trade Center 7, which also collapsed on 9/11.

But was it truly safe?

Who knew?

According to the Times, "In 1976, Grace hired a researcher, William E. Smith, to inject hamsters with [Libby asbestos]. One in 10 developed tumors, Grace documents show. Then, Smith suggested injecting a fresh group with small amounts, to test Grace's assertion that a safe level could be found. Grace rejected his proposal ..."

The company apparently wasn't interested in knowing where, if anywhere, the danger trailed off.

Still, the industry assertion held up until 1999, when the reporting of Andrew Schneider, who was working at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, brought to light the deaths of hundreds, and sickness of thousands in Libby.

And Schneider didn't find just sick and dead miners—the people exposed to high levels of airborne asbestos for long periods. Their wives and children were also suffering from asbestos-related disease, exposed when mine workers came home in the evening.

EPA cleanup crews in full HAZMAT suits were on the job quickly, performing emergency cleanup. While the "hot spots" were being cleaned up, EPA Administrator Whitman visited Libby and made some promises. She promised that Libby wouldn't have to pay for the cleanup, and that the town would be clean within a few years. Cleanup crews were trying to completely remove asbestos from Libby's homes, and it looked like the "no safe exposure" philosophy would prevail.

"You are the center of attention," Whitman told Libby residents at a town meeting, "not only in Montana, but in the nation."

That was Sept. 7, 2001. Four days later, Libby quickly took a backseat.

The EPA's Shift

In contrast to the full-cleanup promises made at Libby, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other regulatory agencies decided to take a different tack in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, adopting industry-promulgated standards in dealing with asbestos exposure risks. The EPA repeatedly told New Yorkers that dust containing less than 1 percent asbestos, and sometimes more than 4 percent, presented a safely low level of exposure, and that once the asbestos had settled out of the air, it posed no long-term threat. That view quickly made its way into the press.

In her 430-page report on the environmental aftermath of 9/11, "A documentary basis for litigation," Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist in the EPA's Hazardous Waste Identification Division, cites dozens of articles that push the industry view of asbestos risk.

For example, from a Sept. 14, 2001, Newsweek story published online: "Of the 24 dust samples the agency took in the first two days of the chaos, many contained asbestos, but only one registered levels above acceptable maximums, says EPA spokesperson Tina Kreisher. That sample, taken from very near the epicenter of the disaster in Manhattan's financial district, contained 4.5 percent asbestos fibers. It was taken as agents fled the collapsing buildings on Tuesday. Dust samples from Thursday, she says, also showed elevated levels of 2.1 percent to 3.3 percent. A level of 1 percent or less is considered safe."

And so, rather than send in EPA-funded cleanup teams to rigorously scrub asbestos and other toxins from New York offices and residences, as the agency would later do in Libby under the Superfund designation, the EPA told New Yorkers they could do it themselves, with HEPA vacuums and wet rags.

On Sept. 13, just two days after the disaster, Whitman declared, "EPA is greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels [sic] of asbestos dust in the air in New York City.

Kimberley A. Strassel, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, spotted the shift in the EPA's treatment of hazardous materials, writing on Oct. 19, 2001: "For decades, the EPA has taken the lead in zero-tolerance policies toward any 'carcinogenic' substance unlucky enough to have caught its eye—whether it be pesticides, Hudson River PCBs or asbestos. This draconian approach has served to encourage unfounded health scares, and created an environment in which people no longer make rational decisions about health risks. It has also led to the nightmare of trial lawyers, lawsuits and corporate bankruptcies."

But on Sept. 11, 2001, the EPA's world changed. Faced with a public health scare that could have sent thousands of Manhattanites fleeing the city or jamming hospitals, the EPA decided to cough up a different story—different from the story being told in Libby—about asbestos. EPA officials bent over backward to get out the message that asbestos was harmful only if breathed at high levels and over sustained periods of time.

(Incidentally, The New York Times later reported that when Journal staffers were asked to return to their Manhattan offices, there was a near-revolt over pollution fears.)

Strassel wasn't the only one to notice the shift in EPA policy.

By early 2002, Libby residents were requesting the EPA declare a health emergency, which would allow the agency to remove all Zonolite attic insulation from homes in Libby. Zonolite was another Grace insulation product, installed in as many as 35 million homes across the United States, and Zonolite happened to be the subject of a class-action suit against Grace. The company's defense? That the insulation releases only small amount of dust, over a long period of time.

On April 10, 2002, William M. Corcoran, vice president of Grace, sent a letter to Whitman, with the following quotes:

"The purpose of this letter is to continue Grace's dialogue with EPA regarding [Zonolite].

"Contrasted to Region 8's [the EPA region governing Libby] disregard of established norms, EPA's pronouncements and activities regarding the World Trade Center collapse reaffirm those norms. Thus, EPA's website reiterates that:

"— EPA is using the 1 percent definition of an asbestos-containing material in evaluating dust and bulk samples.

"— Air samples are the accurate measure of actual exposure potential, whereas the presence of asbestos in dust is not necessarily a significant health hazard.

"— Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long period of time ...

"We believe that sound science dictates that the same peer-reviewed methodologies for assessing risks at the WTC should be applied across the board, including in Libby, Montana."

Grace also used the new Manhattan standards to fight the proposed Superfund cleanup of Libby, which Grace would have to help pay for. In an April 29, 2002, letter to the EPA, Grace argues against Superfund designation, which Montana Gov. Judy Martz asked for in December 2001. In the letter, Grace uses the EPA's statements that asbestos-containing dust in Manhattan poses no long-term threat to bolster its argument that asbestos no longer poses a threat to Libby residents, thus eradicating the justification for Superfund designation.

"Region 8's claim that dust in residential and commercial locations 'may serve as an ongoing source of potential exposure for residents' conflicts with other EPA announcements," Grace argues in the letter. "In addressing the World Trade Center, EPA said that air samples are a more accurate measure of actual exposure potential, and the presence of dust is not necessarily a significant health hazard.

Ultimately, Grace lost its fight against Superfund designation, which the EPA granted in October 2002, but the battle wasn't over yet.

Gordon Sullivan came to Libby from Helena in 1996, well qualified to help with cleanup, having done geological research, environmental impact statements and environmental assessments for the Montana Mining Division, and also having worked in administration at hospitals in Butte, Great Falls and Libby.

In 2003, he was hired as Libby's technical adviser. He was paid with an EPA grant to study the agency's reports, present his findings to Libby residents in layman's terms, and relay citizen concerns back to the EPA.

In an April 2006 interview with the Missoula Independent, before he became aware of Grace's attempts to use the Manhattan example to erode Libby's cleanup standard, Sullivan said the initial standards were already declining, from full removal to containment to minimization of asbestos release. Finally, he said, the Libby standard fell from "minimizing release to 'You clean it up.'" Which was exactly what New Yorkers were told to do.

Gordon's point is made in an October 2003 document, "Living with Vermiculite," which the EPA distributed to all Libby residents. The document essentially toes the industry line on asbestos, stating that low-level, short-term exposure to asbestos is not dangerous and that it is perfectly safe to vacuum up "small releases" with HEPA vacuums or wipe them up with damp cloths, as New Yorkers were told to do.

The cost of abating a Libby home dropped from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of thousands.

EPA did begin removing Zonolite from Libby homes, which has so far cost Grace about $180 million, but a letter sent from EPA's Whitman to Sen. Max Baucus on April 4, 2003, noted that the decision pertained to Libby only, and "has no relationship to how EPA communicates potential exposure risk of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite attic insulation to the wider American public."

Grace later used this letter in its defense against the Zonolite lawsuit, which Grace won in December 2006. Lawyers for the complainants say they will appeal the decision.

Confronting EPA

While Grace tried to use the Manhattan example to get industry-created standards applied in Libby, others tried to use the example of Libby to push a "no safe exposure" approach in Manhattan and other places where asbestos is under fire.

Cate Jenkins is at the forefront of this latter effort.

Jenkins has served as reluctant EPA watchdog before. In 1990, she was nearly forced out of the agency after blowing the whistle on the EPA for using reports doctored by Monsanto to support lessening restrictions on the company's pesticides.

According to one of Jenkins' reports on the WTC aftermath, "A Documentary Basis for Litigation," EPA's Region 8, which includes Libby, offered to allow EPA Region 2, which includes New York, to use its Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) equipment for detecting asbestos fibers.

In residences and businesses where the state-of-the-art equipment was used privately in Manhattan, as well as in the EPA's own Manhattan offices, TEM showed high concentrations of asbestos.

According to Jenkins, Region 2 refused the offer, with an unnamed member of that region declaring during a conference call, "We don't want you fucking cowboys here. The best thing they could do is transfer you to Alaska."

Region 2 instead went with Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) for most of its Manhattan asbestos testing. This was equipment the EPA itself had declared obsolete in 1994. It detected little asbestos. Curiously, EPA tested its own Manhattan offices with Transmission Electron Microscopy.

In a June 25, 2007, hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents parts of Ground Zero, confronted former EPA assistant administrator Marianne Horinko about the PLM testing.

"Ms. Horinko, why was the EPA not using TEM methodology?" Nadler asks.

"I can only tell you we relied on the folks in Region 2 who felt that we should ..."

Nadler interrupts and says, "Region 8 offered Region 2 TEM machines. Region 2 said no. Why?"

"They felt that they should not during a crisis ... depart from the established regulations," Horinko responds.

"The established regulations from 1994 was [sic] to use the more modern TEM. They [Region 2] were the only people using the old fashioned [PLM], guaranteed not to find what they were allegedly looking for. Why would they do that?" Nadler asks.

"All I can say is that Governor Whitman and I relied upon the experts in Region 2 to use—"

Nadler interrupts again, saying, "OK, thank you. So you don't know the answer."

Jenkins makes her main point about the cleanup of New York, and its relationship to Libby, in a Jan. 11, 2001, memo to "Affected Parties and Responsible Officials."

"Why is EPA leaving people to their own devices in the cleanup of New York City, while intervening to clean homes at taxpayers expense in Libby because of an 'imminent and substantial endangerment to public health?'" Jenkins asks.

She notes that in Libby, EPA considers dust a potential source of ongoing exposure that requires elimination.

With asbestos levels found in post-9/11 New York City exceeding any ever recorded in a Libby residence, it seemed clear to Jenkins that a massive Libby-style cleanup would be necessary there as well. New York City, she argued, should be declared a Superfund site. That, of course, has not happened.

The White House Steps In

Grace certainly wasn't the only party with interests in asbestos. Over the years, the White House had also gotten involved with the issue.

A Dec. 27, 2002, story by Andrew Schneider in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in April 2002, Whitman and the EPA were preparing to warn the public of asbestos in Grace's Zonolite insulation. But days before that happened, the White House Office of Management and Budget quashed the announcement.

Unnamed sources told Schneider that Whitman was furious with the decision. Eventually, on May 20, 2003, the EPA did issue its Zonolite warning. But, according to Schneider's book An Air That Kills, co-authored with David McCumber, news of the warning went largely ignored; Whitman had chosen that very day to resign her position at the EPA.

The administration may have had more than its usual ideological anti-regulation interest in asbestos.

In December 2001, Halliburton, for which Vice President Dick Cheney once served as CEO, was facing close to $125 million in asbestos-related liabilities after losing three lawsuits, and nervous investors were dropping the stock. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (which helps shield companies from a degree of liability, without actually putting them out of business). Much of Halliburton's trouble sprang from the company's 1998 purchase of Dresser Industries, which, Halliburton later found, carried huge asbestos liabilities. In 1999, Cheney, as Halliburton's CEO, lobbied Congress to pass the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act, which would have created bureaucratic gatekeepers to determine who has the right to sue for compensation for asbestos-related disease. The bill never passed, and Cheney soon moved from Halliburton to the vice presidency.

The White House also paid close attention to asbestos in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On Sept. 12, 2001, the White House asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for fact sheets on asbestos and vermiculite, apparently aware that both substances were contained in the twin towers and WTC 7. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, one lawsuit, three congressional hearings, and an EPA inspector general's report alleged that the White House's Council on Environmental Quality exerted direct control over what messages New Yorkers received about contamination and other chemicals in their city.

"The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones," the IG concluded in its 2003 report on the EPA's handling of public health at Ground Zero. These actions prompted U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts to declare, "Whitman's deliberate and misleading statements made to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to those areas, shocks the conscience." Batts denied a request to dismiss a class-action suit against Whitman and the EPA alleging the agency knowingly placed people in the way of harmful contamination. That case is ongoing.

And the dust and smoke from the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers contained far more than just asbestos. According to David M. Newman, of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), the Trade Center collapse may have released up to 40,000 pounds of lead, as much as 23 pounds of mercury, and high concentrations of dioxin.

The EPA and other agencies whose press releases were overseen by the White House told citizens at and around Ground Zero that the air and water were safe. The number of people who may have died from exposure to toxic substances released at Ground Zero is still contested, but 70,000 have registered with the World Trade Center Health Registry, claiming to have been made ill. That number should be read in light of the fact that asbestos-related diseases have long latency periods and often don't manifest for decades.

How Toxic?

Like asbestos, the other substances released by the WTC collapse are hotly debated as to their toxicity. Is it possible the administration wanted to make sure its actions at Ground Zero could not be used to support additional regulation of these substances? Did it allow anti-regulation ideology to trump public health? It wouldn't be the first time such allegations have been levied at the Bush White House. A former surgeon general has accused the Bush administration of allowing ideology to trump medical science, and former U.S. district attorneys have accused the Bush team of allowing ideology to trump law.

But say there was no conspiracy. Say the administration was only trying to prevent panic among people who had already been through hell, or that top White House officials had no idea that widespread exposure to lead, mercury, asbestos, dioxin and other chemicals might possibly have negative health effects.

Even so, the statements made by the EPA, at the administration's direction, helped bolster W.R. Grace's attempts to undermine cleanup efforts in Libby and muddle warnings about the potential health risks of Zonolite.

And those same statements opened the door to relaxation of industry standards on other substances that doused New Yorkers.

"When they [federal agencies] lower their standards, it gives a green light to industry to do the same," David Newman, a NYCOSH representative who has testified before congressional committees on post-9/11 pollution, told the Independent.

Ultimately, in December 2006, the EPA inspector general forced the EPA to pull all documents advising Libby residents to treat asbestos the way New Yorkers were advised to treat it, and to re-evaluate its Superfund cleanup of the town.

For now, it appears Grace hasn't been able to use the tragedy in New York to diminish the EPA's response to the tragedy in Libby. It remains to be seen if the painful lessons learned in Libby can help avert an ongoing tragedy in New York.

­­A version of this story appeared in the Missoula Independent.

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