Controlling The Message

The level of asbestos around the World Trade Center following the attack was even more dangerous than that of Libby, where the asbestos had originated. Rather than warning the public about the immanent dangers, the administration cynically assured everybody that the scientific evidence showed the site to be safe. In fact, the site was anything but safe.

To begin with, the administration had callously sacrificed scientific analysis for crude public relations. What could have motivated the government to downplay the risks during this crisis? We now know that the leadership of the administration had an overriding concern to create the appearance of normalcy in New York as soon as possible. According to a report of the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency, the administration was especially eager to reopen the New York Stock Exchange, as a symbol of national strength (Office of Inspector General. Environmental Protection Agency 2003).

Unfortunately, this symbolism proved painfully hollow. To begin with, who in their right mind would actually look upon the New York Stock Exchange as a symbol of national strength rather than a venue of financial manipulation? More seriously, the national and local government agencies that vouched for the safety of the site were risking the lives of countless people. Robin Herbert and Stephen Levin, the directors of a federal screening program at Mount Sinai Hospital, told the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations on October 2003, that of 8,000 Ground Zero workers that the hospital screened, 75 per cent had persistent respiratory problems. Pregnant mothers who were near the disaster area bore children who were about a half pound lighter (see Schneider and McCumber 2004: 338-9).

Was the government's assurance that the site was safe meant to help the administration appear to have the situation under control? That motive makes some sense. While a relatively fearful atmosphere can make the public willing to allow the government more powers, an excess of fear can easily turn to panic.

More shallow economic motives may have also been at play. When Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, traveled to address New York City on September 13, 2001, she delivered a reassuring promise from President Bush:

We're getting in there and testing to make sure things are safe Everything will be vacuumed that needs to be, air filters (in area buildings) will be cleaned, we're not going to let anybody into a building that isn't safe. And these buildings will be safe. The president has made it clear that we are to spare no expense on this one, and get this job done. [France and Check 2001]

A thorough cleanup would not have been very expensive considering the number of lives at stake, but the government never followed through with its pledge. If the government could walk away from the responsibility of this extraordinary level of contamination, industry could claim an equal right to avoid its own responsibilities, especially when the damage could be much less severe than those that the government ignored.

Certainly, companies facing massive asbestos liabilities, such as Halliburton, which I discussed earlier, had a strong interest in minimizing the dangers associated with the hazards of this material. In this regard, Cate Jenkins, a courageous, whistleblowing scientist from the Environmental Protection Agency whose efforts have shaped much of my thinking about this event, warned:

The World Trade Center contamination zone is the asbestos industry's battleground. What happens here shapes future cleanups of other asbestos sites as well as litigation in the years to come. There is legislation in Congress at this very minute that would prevent anyone exposed to WTC dust from ever collecting any compensation after contracting asbestos induced mesothelioma or lung cancer, because their exposures were not "work place related." [Jenkins 2003]

Indeed, William M. Corcoran, Vice President, W. R. Grace & Co. wrote to Michael Shapiro, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response of the EPA, on February 6, 2002 and then to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman on August 4, 2002, making the case that the lax cleanup at the World Trade Center should serve as a precedent for Grace to reduce its responsibilities in Libby.

To make matters worse, the EPA has begun major initiatives to downgrade its current carcinogenicity rating for chrysotile asbestos. The agency already classifies all fibers smaller than 5 microns as being non-carcinogenic, even though the smaller fibers have more potential to do damage. Now, the EPA proposes to downgrade even larger fibers.

While the Environmental Protection Agency was assuring the public about the safety of the area around the World Trade Center, many inside that agency had serious concerns. In fact, the agency took the trouble to use a far more sensitive test for its own offices than it applied to the surrounding areas.

The intense pressure for delivering a calming message actually came from a far less known government agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, headed by James Connaughton, a well-connected lawyer, who before his appointment by President Bush made a career of representing companies charged with creating toxic pollution. For example, one of his major clients, American Smelting and Refining Co. Inc. and two subsidiaries, as of September 30, 1999, were defendants in 1,377 lawsuits brought by 5,950 primary and 1,036 secondary plaintiffs seeking substantial actual and punitive damages for personal injury or death allegedly caused by exposure to asbestos <http://www.litigationdatasource.com/asarco_inc.txt>.

According to a Washington Post portrait of Mr Connaughton: "As a partner in the firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, Connaughton represented General Electric Co. and the mining company Asarco Inc. in battles with the EPA over Superfund cleanup requirements. He also lobbied on behalf of Alcoa Inc., the Chemical Manufacturers Association and other prominent corporate interests with pollution problems." The article cites a senior administration official, who reported "More than any single person, Jim Connaughton is the architect of the administration's environmental policy" (Pianin 2003a).

Relations between Connaughton's operation and the EPA were tense to say the least. According to a New York Times reporter who had access to internal documents:

there were "screaming telephone calls" about the news releases between Tina Kreisher, then an associate administrator, and Sam Thernstrom, then the White House council's communications director. The E.P.A.'s chief of staff, Eileen McGinnis, had to ask the head of the White House council, James L. Connaughton, to urge his staff to "lighten up," according to interviews with the inspector general's office. Ms. Kreisher, who now works as a speechwriter at the Department of the Interior, is quoted as saying she "felt extreme pressure" from Mr. Thernstrom. [Lee 2003]

The ultimate source of this pressure may have come from President Bush himself. According to Michael Catanzaro, Communications Director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the president himself made the decision to put the Council on Environmental Quality in charge of the multi-agency task force that organized the response effort (Catanzaro 2003).

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