Post Harvey question: After 9/11 can firefighters & others trust the EPA?

If you are looking at the question asked in this headline through a partisan political lens, you will be missing the point. This is an extremely important question for the safety and well being of firefighters and all in public safety. It’s one I can’t begin to answer. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who our current political leaders are and has everything to do with lessons learned from our past.

Right now, many decisions are being made each day about the safety of firefighters, police, EMS and the public in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Many of these decisions will have to do with the toxicity of smoke, water and soil. Some of these decisions will be based on advice from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Almost sixteen-years-ago, EPA provided extremely important advice at the site of another enormous disaster. It’s advice that then EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman last year, for the first time, publicly admitted was wrong. It’s advice Governor Whitman also admits haunts her.

Lives are still being lost because EPA announced to the public in the days following the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan that “the air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.” Firefighters, police, EMS, construction workers and ordinary citizens paid the price for that bad information. The toll on the fire service alone has been immense.

In 2003, the inspector general for EPA found that the agency had no basis for making such a quick announcement about the air quality.

More than 37,000 people are registered with the World Trade Center Health Program. Around 1200 people who were registered have died from 9/11 related illnesses.

So, here we are again. Firefighters and others are putting their futures in the hands of those at EPA and other federal, state and local agencies that monitor for things in our air, water and ground than can kill us.

We can hope EPA is now better equipped to make these judgments and more cautious about giving the all clear. But the real lesson from 9/11 may be to not trust just one source — even one with the powers that come from being the federal agency responsible for such important decisions. The answer may be in a Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan was fond of — trust, but verify.

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