Whopper of the Week
Christie Whitman: The perils of premature assurance.
"Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breath[e] and their water is safe to drink."
—Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, as quoted in an EPA press release issued on Sept. 18, 2001
"EPA did not have monitoring data to support reassurances made in press releases up to September 18 because it lacked monitoring data for several contaminants, particularly PCBs, particulate matter, dioxin, and PAHs.
"According to a draft evaluation entitled Exposure and Human Health Evaluationof Airborne Pollution From the World Trade Center Disaster, by EPA's Office of Research and Development, that Office was not able to make health risk evaluations for exposures in the first couple of days because of the lack of monitoring data. For several pollutants of concern, sampling did not begin until September 16, and in many cases the results were not known until after the September 18 press release was issued. EPA was not able to obtain samples and monitor air due to difficulties in access and security, power supply sources, equipment availability, and analytical capacity. As a result, data available before September 18 for making conclusions about air quality for pollutants other than asbestos was limited."
—EPA's Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement, a report issued by the EPA's Office of Inspector General, Aug. 21, 2003
"Q: How well did the EPA do in leveling with the people of New York about the safety of the air?
"A: Our concern in our report, which is that EPA did not have all the information it needed to make broad statements about the safety of the air and water. But the most glaring issue we've identified was a September 18th press release where EPA said that the air was generally safe and the water was safe. Early on, it was difficult for EPA to even have access to the WorldTradeCenter site to do the kind of monitoring that it would want to do in order to make environmental assessments.
"Q: Was [the] White House ... changing the tone of EPA's statements to the public?
"A: The press releases were part of a collaborative process. The agency and all aspects of the federal government wanted to speak with one voice. …
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.