World Trade Center:

EPA's Most Recent Test and Clean Program Raises Concerns That Need to Be Addressed to Better Prepare for Indoor Contamination Following Disasters

GAO-07-1091: Published: Sep 5, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 5, 2007.

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The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and World Trade Center (WTC) collapse blanketed Lower Manhattan in dust from building debris. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted an indoor clean and test program from 2002 to 2003. In 2003, EPA's Inspector General (IG) recommended improvements to the program and identified lessons learned for EPA's preparedness for future disasters. In 2004, EPA formed an expert panel to, among other goals, guide EPA in developing a second voluntary program; EPA announced this program in 2006. As requested, GAO's report primarily addresses EPA's second program, including the (1) extent to which EPA incorporated IG and expert panel member recommendations and input; (2) factors, if any, limiting the expert panel's ability to meet its goals; (3) completeness of information EPA provided to the public; (4) way EPA estimated resources for the program; and (5) extent to which EPA has acted upon lessons learned regarding indoor contamination from disasters.

EPA has incorporated some recommendations and input from the IG and expert panel members into its second program, but its decision not to include other items may limit the overall effectiveness of this program. For example, while EPA agreed to test for more contaminants, it did not agree to evaluate risks in areas north of Canal Street and in Brooklyn. EPA reported that it does not have a basis for expanding the boundaries of its program because it cannot distinguish between normal urban, or background, dust and WTC dust. The expert panel's ability to meet its goals was limited by two factors: (1) EPA officials' belief that some panel goals were more appropriately addressed by other agencies, and (2) EPA's approach to managing the panel process. Furthermore, the majority of expert panel members believe the panel did not meet any of its goals, and that EPA's second program does not respond to the concerns of residents and workers affected by the disaster. EPA's second plan does not fully inform the public about the results of its first program. EPA concluded that a "very small" number of samples from its first program exceeded risk levels for airborne asbestos. However, EPA did not provide information such as how representative the samples were of the affected area. Residents who could have participated in this voluntary second program might have opted not to do so because of EPA's conclusion about its first program. EPA did not develop a comprehensive cost estimate to determine the resources needed to carry out its second program. EPA is implementing this program with $7 million remaining from its first program. While EPA has acted upon lessons learned following this disaster, some concerns remain about its preparedness to respond to indoor contamination following future disasters. Specifically, EPA has not developed protocols on how and when to collect data to determine the extent of indoor contamination, one of the concerns raised by panel members.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's ability to provide environmental health risk information to the public that is complete and readily understandable, the Administrator of EPA should facilitate the implementation of the recently issued Crisis Communication Plan by issuing guidance that, among other things, ensures the presentation of environmental data in an appropriate context, with appropriate technical caveats noted in plain language.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA updated and formalized its Crisis Communication Plan into an EPA Order that provides guidance regarding the presentation of environmental data in a way that is accessible for the public. The Order addresses the communication of environmental data to the public, the format of content presented to the public, and the importance of community outreach. For example, according to the order, following a nationally significant incident, environmental data must be disseminated to the public in an understandable, timely, accurate and consistent manner. In addition, the order indicates that EPA staff will prepare materials that present the data in easily understood language, in formats easily accessible to the public (e.g., Web site), and in an appropriate context with the appropriate technical caveats noted in plain language. Regarding the content format, the order indicates that materials submitted for posting to the Web site must include text and contextual material about the supporting data that are written in clear language.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with a sound basis for the Stafford Act funds needed for future disaster response programs, the Administrator of EPA should establish guidelines for developing program cost estimates. These cost estimates should support the programs' objectives and promote the efficient and effective use of government resources.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA established guidelines for developing program cost estimates as part of the agency's President's Management Agenda, January 2009 and in the revision dated February 2010. In addition, as indicated in its September 2008 response to GAO's report, EPA indicated that in large incidents since the World Trade Center disaster, EPA has developed more detailed cost estimates to help plan the Agency's Stafford Act activities. EPA has also responded to FEMA's request that all Emergency Support Function coordinating agencies prepare Prescripted Mission Assignments for both short and long term duration response activities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA is better prepared for future disasters that involve indoor contamination and that it captures important information that could guide future cleanup decisions, the Administrator of EPA should, in concert with the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Labor, and other appropriate federal agencies, develop protocols or memorandums of understanding under the National Response Plan that specifically address indoor contamination. These protocols should define when the extent of contamination is to be determined, as well as how and when indoor cleanups are to be conducted. EPA should seek additional statutory authority if it determines that such additional authority is necessary.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA identified three guidance documents that specifically address indoor contamination. While EPA has completed one of the three, and has taken substantial steps to complete a second, the third document is in the review and comment stage. These remaining two guidance documents are DHS-led and involve a multi-year process that is iterative and interagency. EPA expects to submit additional comments to DHS once its receives all input from other agencies.

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