GAO blasts EPA over its response to Katrina

Published 6:24 pm Thursday, June 28, 2007

A new congressional report says the Environmental Protection Agency potentially exposed scores of residents, volunteers and workers to asbestos fibers by not doing more to monitor the contaminant in the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

The report by the new Government Accountability Office, issued Monday, comes as the Environmental Protection Agency faces renewed criticism of its assurances about the safety of the air near the fallen World Trade Center.

On Monday, former EPA chief Christie Whitman was upbraided at a congressional hearing for telling people that it was safe to breathe the air around the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since the attacks, studies have found that many ground zero workers, rescue workers and firefighters suffered from respiratory problems and a serious lung-scarring disease.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, environmentalists and health experts complained that state and federal environmental officials were downplaying the risks of gutting and demolishing homes and the threat from heavy metals and gasoline dumped on the lawns, school yards and parks by flood waters.

Although EPA asbestos air data has not found “potential problems regarding public exposure to asbestos fibers,” the GAO said those results might not be an accurate picture of the risk to “residents, workers, and volunteers” because of “monitoring gaps” and “the scaling back of monitoring sites a few months after demolitions began.”

While monitoring for asbestos may have been insufficient, steps have been taken to reduce the risk. For example, before a building is demolished it is drenched in water to keep asbestos fibers from getting into the air.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at EPA and longtime whistleblower within the agency, said the new report by the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, confirmed serious concerns about EPA’s assurances after both the World Trade Center attacks and Katrina.

“It’s deja vu all over again,” Kaufman said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, nobody has told the people of the risks, just like with 9/11 and the World Trade Center.”

In the wake of Katrina, an extraordinary array of people — church groups, college students, philanthropists and day laborers — have flocked to south Louisiana to help in the rebuilding, Kaufman said.

“Good people of good will are putting their health at risk and nobody’s telling them the truth,” he said.

Albert Huang, an environmental justice attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said EPA had the power to do a full-scale cleanup of contaminants and go to great lengths to protect people by handing out protective gear, but chose not to.

“EPA abdicated a legal and moral responsibility they had to protect returning residents from toxic contamination that was exacerbated by the flood,” he said. “People have the right to return to an environment that is safe.”

Jessica L. Emond, an EPA deputy press secretary, said EPA “and the other first responder agencies responded quickly and decisively to help their fellow citizens.”

But, she added, “As with everything the agency does, it is vital to look back and evaluate the actions we took, in addition to looking for ways to improve. EPA continues to make improvements in its work based on the agency’s experience with the Hurricane Katrina response.”

Darin Mann, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency had not yet been supplied a copy of the report and would respond to it once it has had a chance to review it.

The report also said EPA at times issued “unclear and inconsistent” information on the potential danger of asbestos, mold and other contaminants as people went about gutting and demolishing homes.

For example, while EPA told people sampling of floodwaters, soil and air showed no risk, it took the agency eight months to clarify that those assurances only “applied to short-term visits, such as to view damage to homes,” the GAO report said.

It has become common for families to move back into half-rebuilt homes and do extensive repairs on their own. In many neighborhoods, people are moving back into homes while demolitions are ongoing all around them.

Asbestos was not the sole concern highlighted by the 102-page report, commissioned by the GAO’s comptroller general. The GAO faulted the Bush administration for not quickly freeing up money to remove storm-driven chemical and oil tanks from national wildlife refuges as part of the billions of dollars spent responding to the disaster. In part, the GAO said, the work was not done promptly “because disaster assistance funding generally is not used for debris cleanups on federal lands.”

It took more than a year to begin the cleanup of the refuges and that work is still ongoing in places, the report said.

The GAO also suggested giving EPA more of a role in deciding where to put waste generated by a disaster. In New Orleans, the use of an old municipal landfill to bury the huge volumes of Katrina waste has alarmed many environmentalists who warn that the landfill may become a Superfund site.