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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works


Location: Washington, DC

Statement of Chairwoman Hillary Rodham Clinton

The hearing will come to order.

I thank you all for being here, I know there are a number of New Yorkers in the audience, and I welcome all of you: Kimberly Flynn, and Joseph Jones, and Jenna Orkin, and Marvin Bethea, and Barbara Einzig, and everyone else.

This is the first hearing of the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health, and it is entitled "EPA's Response to 9-11 and Lessons Learned for Future Emergency Preparedness."

Also in the audience is my friend and colleague, and someone who has been a real leader on these issues, Congressman Jerry Nadler.

This follows a hearing that I chaired in the HELP Committee earlier this year in March to address the urgent health needs of the thousands of first responders, workers, volunteers, and residents who have suffered illnesses because of the toxins to which they were exposed following the attacks of 9/11. It is a companion hearing to one that Congressman Nadler will hold on the House side next week.

We will first hear testimony from a federal panel that includes EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Government Accountability Office. We will then hear from a panel that includes a New York City resident and a scientific expert, both heavily involved in 9-11 contamination issues.

And I am delighted to be joined by the Ranking Member on this Committee, Senator Larry Craig. Thank you very much Senator Craig for coming. And my Chairman of the full committee, Senator Barbara Boxer, as well as my friend and colleague Senator Lautenberg. I really appreciate each of their interest in this issue, and of course Senator Lautenberg and I share many constituents who have been suffering and even dying because of their exposure to the toxins at and around Ground Zero.

I called this hearing because it is time for answers. Nearly six years after 9/11, we still don't have the whole truth about the toxic cloud of poison that filled the air after the towers fell. We don't have an explanation for the misrepresentations that put countless people at risk of exposure to chemicals that we know are causing illness and death.

When we turned to our Government in Washington for guidance in the hours, days, and weeks after that tragedy, one of the questions people asked was obvious and important: Is the air safe?

What did EPA tell us? On September 18, 2001, Governor Whitman said, and I quote: "I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

Now, based on the EPA's statements, parents sent their children to school in the area and residents returned to their apartments. But as the EPA Inspector General informed us in 2003, the EPA's statements were, and I quote, "not supported by the data available at the time."

Now, I recognize that EPA and everyone else involved were operating under unprecedented and extremely difficult circumstances. But I simply cannot accept what appears to have been a deliberate effort to provide unwarranted reassurances - at the direction of the White House - to New Yorkers about whether their air was safe to breathe.

I well remember my first visit to Ground Zero, the day after 9/11. You could feel it on your skin - the air was acrid and thick. You could taste it, you certainly could smell it. Back in Washington, I went to work, pushing then-Administrator Whitman to address environmental hazards from the 9-11 fallout, and to hold hearings in New York City on the issue in February of 2002. I pushed for EPA to address the indoor contamination issue, and fought for the Bush Administration to address the shortcomings identified in the first cleanup program, leading to a commitment to establish the EPA World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel in 2003.

I have also worked to secure funding for programs to provide medical screening and tracking for first responders. I am very pleased that the Senate Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee has approved a bill yesterday to provide an additional $55 million in federal funding to address the mounting health needs of those individuals who were exposed to environmental hazards. And for the first time we were able to secure bill language yesterday requiring the Department of Health and Human Services, through NIOSH, to extend the program to residents, students, and others impacted by the toxins. And I want to thank Senators Harkin and Spector for including this in the legislation.

The reason I have worked so hard on these issues is because of heartrending stories of people like Felicia Dunn-Jones - and members of her family are here with us. In May, the New York City medical examiner reversed an earlier decision, and ruled that the death of Felicia Dunn-Jones was connected to her exposure on 9/11, the first such ruling in New York. And we already had had a ruling by the coroner in New Jersey connecting the death of an NYPD detective to his exposure.

Felicia Dunn-Jones was a 42 year old lawyer who worked near the World Trade Center. In February of 2002, she passed away from Sarcoidosis, often associated with environmental hazards. Her husband, Joe Jones, who lives in Staten Island with his two children, is here today, as is Felicia's sister, Sharon Alvarez.

She was caught in the toxic cloud, and her story recognizes how difficult the balance has been of scientific and medical evidence, but it is shifting - showing that increased exposure to 9-11 toxins actually can cause illness and death.

The first responders were the first to see these effects. Within two months of the attacks, 300 firefighters were on medical leave, suffering with lung ailments. Subsequent research has shown that this was just the first sign of the persistent health problems.

More than 11,500 firefighters and 3,000 emergency medical technicians and paramedics took part in the greatest rescue ever mounted. We know that thousands are now suffering from adverse health effects. According to fire department studies, exposed firefighters on average experienced a decline in lung function equivalent to that which would be produced by 12 years of aging.

More than 34,000 employees of the New York Police Department participated in rescue, recovery and cleanup operations at Ground Zero or Fresh Kills - where the debris from the disaster was taken. More than 2,000 members of the police department have filed medical claims.

The rescue and recovery efforts were assisted by heavy machinery operators, laborers, ironworkers, building and construction tradespeople, telecommunication workers, and others from the public and private sector. Researchers at Mt. Sinai Medical Center have documented physical and mental health effects among this population, with 69 percent reporting new or worsened respiratory symptoms experienced while at Ground Zero, and 59 percent still experiencing persistent health effects more than two years after the attacks.

Almost 60,000 residents live in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, south of Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. The dust and debris settled in many of the apartments and buildings in the vicinity of the attacks. An analysis of more than 2,000 residents in the area found 60 percent experienced the onset of respiratory symptoms, a rate approximately three times higher than that of the surrounding area in Manhattan. In addition, students at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan, who were evacuated because of their proximity to the World Trade Center, resumed classes one month after the attacks, they had rates of respiratory and other illnesses at rates that were higher than those at other New York City high schools.

Sadly, some of these illnesses were not preventable, as the toxic dust cloud literally enveloped many people as they fled from the scene. But many who were exposed could have been protected.

That is why it is important that we examine what went wrong. Americans deserve to know what we can do to better protect them.

And we have a number of questions.

First, why did the Bush Administration, EPA and CEQ management choose to downplay and grossly misrepresent the exposure health risks posed in the days and weeks after 9-11?

Second, the EPA's own inspector general blasted the EPA's program to clean up indoor contamination. But four years later, the EPA is making the same mistakes again.

Third, have EPA and CEQ learned lessons from the disaster and are better prepared to protect public health from environmental hazards in the future? To me, it is clear from the GAO testimony that some lessons are being ignored and I don't want us to repeat the mistakes.

We can never repay those who sacrificed for us, who answered the call of duty. We cannot go back in time and pull the brave men and woman off that pile or order them to wear respiratory protection equipment. We can't tell the residents, first responders, workers, volunteers, and others that the air is too dangerous to breathe. But we can clear the air here in Washington and clear the way to help those affected and to hold accountable those who let New Yorkers and Americans down, to learn lessons so that we should to be fully prepared for the unthinkable. That is why I have called today's hearing.

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