Dr. Cate Jenkins joined the EPA as an Environmental Scientist in December 1979. Beginning shortly after 9/11, and continuing for years afterward, Dr. Jenkins attempted to bring the EPA’s faulty and fraudulent air quality testing practices to the attention of anyone who would listen. For her efforts, she endured a years-long legal battle with her own agency. This is her story.
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Of the many scenes from September 11, 2001, that have been etched into the public consciousness, few are as iconic as the images of the survivors and first responders escaping Ground Zero completely covered in dust from the destruction of the Twin Towers.
And of the many, many lies told by government officials in the days following the attacks, few have been as blatant or as clearly documented as the lies about the safety of that dust propounded by the EPA and its administrator at the time, Chrstine Todd Whitman.
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: We know asbestos was in there, was in those buildings. Lead is in those buildings. There are the VOC’s [Volatile Organic Compounds], however, the concentrations are such that they don’t pose a health hazard.
WHITMAN: Well, if there’s any good news out of all this, it’s that everything we’ve tested for, which includes asbestos, lead, and VOCs, have been below any level of concern for the general public health. Obviously, for those who are down here, these are very important . . .
WHITMAN: Statements that EPA officials made after 9/11 were based on the judgment of experienced environmental and health professionals at the EPA, OSHA and the CDC, who had analyzed the test data that 13 different organizations and agencies were collecting in Lower Manhattan.
I do not recall any EPA scientist or experts responsible for reviewing this data ever advising me that the test data from Lower Manhattan showed that the air or water proposed long-term health risks for the general public.
As we now know, these statements were all lies.
As early as September 18th, the very same day that Whitman was assuring New Yorkers that the air was safe to breathe, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already detected sulfur dioxide levels in the air so high that “according to one industrial hygienist, they were above the EPA’s standard for a classification of ‘hazardous’.” And even in those early days, first responders were already reporting a range of health problems, including coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and headaches. Even so, Whitman and the EPA persisted in perpetuating the lies about the dust, assuring New Yorkers that respirators were not needed outside of the “restricted area” around Ground Zero.
And, as we examined in 9/11 Suspects: Christine Todd Whitman, it was later confirmed that the White House had been editing the EPA’s press releases on the air quality in Manhattan and removing warnings about the air safety all along.
LISA MYERS: In the wake of 9/11, there were serious concerns about whether the air around Ground Zero was filled with toxins, unsafe for workers and residents. But by September 18th, many New Yorkers were back in their apartments and on the job, partly because of this press release that day from the Environmental Protection Agency, reassuring New Yorkers that their air is safe to breathe.
Was that press release misleading?
NIKKI TINSLEY: It was surely not telling all of the truth.
MYERS: In an exclusive interview, Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, the EPA’s top watchdog, tells NBC News the agency simply did not have sufficient data to justify such a reassurance. In fact, a new report by Tinsley’s office says at the time, more than 25 percent of dust samples collected before September 18th showed unsafe levels of asbestos. And the EPA had no test results at all on PCBs, dioxins or particulates in the air that can cause respiratory problems.
TINSLEY: The EPA did not give the people of New York complete information.
MYERS: So what happened? Tinsley’s report charges in the crucial days after 9/11 the White House changed EPA press releases to “add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.” September 13th, the EPA draft release, never released to the public, says, “EPA ‘testing terrorized sites for environmental hazards.’” The White House changes that to EPA “reassures public about environmental hazards.” September 16th, the EPA draft says, “recent samples of dust on Water Street show higher levels of asbestos.” The White House version: “new samples confirm ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and is not a cause for public concern.” And the White House leaves out entirely this warning, that “air samples raise concerns for cleanup workers and office workers near Water Street.”
What many do not know, because their story has been largely ignored and marginalized, is that there were officials within the EPA who were desperately trying to blow the whistle on the agency’s lies. Officials like Cate Jenkins.
Dr. Cate Jenkins had joined the EPA in December 1979, serving as an Environmental Scientist with EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER). Her work included “detecting hazardous waste and developing regulations for their control,” a role that took on special importance in the wake of the toxic dust clouds covering Manhattan on 9/11. Unlike many of the other 9/11 whistleblowers, however, the events of September 11, 2001, did not represent the first time Dr. Jenkins had to blow the whistle on her own agency.
Jenkins dealt with many hazardous waste products in her job, but she specialized in dioxin (a.k.a. Agent Orange), a contaminant of wood preservatives that was used in the Vietnam War as a defoliant. Monsanto Chemical Corporation was the largest producer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and it was a series of Monsanto-sponsored studies in the early 1980s that led the EPA to conclude that “human evidence supporting an association” between dioxin and cancer “is considered inadequate.”
In February 1990, Jenkins wrote a memo to the EPA Science Advisory Board alleging that the Monsanto-sponsored studies were fraudulent, and that the studies, if performed correctly, would have shown the carcinogenic effects of dioxin. The memo caught the attention of the press and, under the glare of a media spotlight, the EPA launched a criminal investigation of Monsanto. That investigation was opened on August 20th and closed less than two years later, but, as EPA whistleblower William Sanjour notes, “the investigation itself and the basis for closing the investigation were fraudulent.” No attempt was even made to determine the scientific validity of the studies in question, and the EPA declined to pursue the matter because of statute of limitations technicalities.
The EPA did, however, find time to mount a campaign of retribution against Jenkins for having the audacity to blow the whistle on the agency and its listing practices for hazardous chemicals. Her workload was reduced and higher-ups at the EPA immediately began talking about shunting her off into a purely administrative position where she would “not be involved with anything that puts her in direct contact with the regulated community or the public.” Her supervisor even wrote a letter to Monsanto apologizing for Jenkins’ memo questioning their studies.
Jenkins filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, and, in a series of cases that were appealed all the way up to the Secretary of Labor himself, it was found that she had been unfairly retaliated against for her whistleblowing and the EPA was ordered to reinstate her in her previous position.
But as nightmarish as that years-long, potentially career-ending ordeal in whistleblowing was for Dr. Jenkins, it was nothing compared to the ordeal she would have to face after “the day that changed everything.”
Beginning shortly after the attack, and continuing for years afterward, Dr. Jenkins attempted to bring the EPA’s faulty and fraudulent air quality testing practices to the attention of anyone who would listen. According to the Administrative Review Board of the US Department of Labor:
“Beginning in 2001, Jenkins made numerous disclosures and complaints alleging that the EPA engaged in improper laboratory testing, falsified a regulation governing exposure safety standards, and knowingly covered up the toxic properties of the dust emanating from the September 11, 2001 [9/11] World Trade Center [WTC] disaster. The improper testing and cover-up, Jenkins claimed, contributed to excessive and harmful toxic dust exposures of WTC ‘First Responders’ and others sufficient to later cause respiratory and other serious and debilitating disease. Jenkins disseminated these disclosures and complaints to her supervisors and others at EPA, to the EPA Inspector General’s Office, members of Congress, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as to state officials, state elected representatives, law firms representing WTC First Responders, citizens, and the media. Her disclosures were posted on web sites and repeatedly quoted in the press and television broadcasts, and by members of Congress.”
One of these early memos, dated January 11, 2002, was written on EPA letterhead and addressed to “Affected Parties and Responsible Officials.” It examines the case of Libby, Montana—a designated “Superfund” site, where the federal government is paying to help residents clean the “interiors of homes and residential soils [that] have been contaminated with asbestos from an adjacent vermiculite mining operation.” Jenkins compared the levels of contaminated dust particles found inside apartments in Lower Manhattan after 9/11 to dust samples taken in Libby, finding that the New York samples contained 22 times higher concentrations of asbestos than the Montana samples. As Jenkins noted: “The logical question thus arises: Why is EPA leaving people to their own devices in the cleanup of New York City, while intervening to clean homes at taxpayer expense in Libby?”
Worse, a team of independent scientists hired by tenant groups and New York political leaders found much higher samples of asbestos in the dust than what the EPA was reporting. As Dr. Jenkins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time: “For every asbestos fiber EPA detected, the new methods used by the outside experts found nine. [. . .] This is too important a difference to be ignored if you really care about the health of the public.”
CATE JENKINS: New York City directly lied about the test results for asbestos in the air. When they finally released them, they doctored the results. They changed high hazardous levels to zero when they finally released them.
After years of internal memos, press interviews and other tireless efforts to blow the whistle on the severe health issues that would develop as a result of the EPA’s deliberate cover-up, the mainstream media was finally forced to begin covering the issue in 2006, after many of the Ground Zero clean-up workers and the residents of Manhattan were beginning to succumb to the effects of the deadly dust.
In 2006, after a federal judge ruled that Whitman’s post-9/11 lies were “conscience-shocking” and that she would not be granted immunity for her actions, the media finally began to cover the story. The New York Times, CBS and other outlets all ran stories on the scandal, and they all quoted from Jenkins’ memos and featured interviews with Jenkins herself. After the 5th anniversary came and went on September 11, 2006, however, the media’s attention turned elsewhere and the story drifted out of the attention of the public once again.
But Dr. Jenkins’ attempt to obtain justice for the victims of this horrendous crime did not end there. In 2007, she penned a remarkable 134-page letter addressed to then-Senator Hillary Clinton, as well as Congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, calling for a Senate investigation of the falsification of pH corrosivity data for World Trade Center dust. The thoroughly documented letter, containing over 300 footnotes and citations, included a detailed analysis of the falsification of WTC pH data by groups like the US Geological Survey, and the remarkable story of how “In May 1980, EPA’s hazardous waste program falsified pH levels (changed the numbers) that the UN World Health Organization (WHO) International Labour Organization (ILO) determined would invariably result in corrosive permanent tissue damage (chemical burns).”
In a much shorter—though no-less-explosive—letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation written at the same time, Jenkins also called for the FBI to open a criminal investigation into the EPA’s cover-up. This was followed up with an additional letter to the FBI in 2008, where Jenkins went even further, alleging fraud in pH testing of WTC dust and providing documentation that the EPA lab had diluted WTC dust almost 600 times with water before testing it for corrosivity.