GAO Report Finds Federal Environmental Authorities Let Asbestos Monitoring Dip Post-Katrina

Wednesday, June 27th 2007, 10:06 pm
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ 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, issued by the Government Accountability Office, said that although asbestos air data has not found potential problems, those results might not be an accurate picture of the risk because of gaps in monitoring and scalebacks in monitoring once demolitions began.

After 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.

The report, issued this week, comes as the EPA faces renewed criticism of its assurances about the safety of the air near the fallen World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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 attacks. Since 2001, studies have found that many ground zero workers, rescue workers and firefighters suffered from respiratory problems and a serious lung-scarring disease.

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.

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.

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.

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.''

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