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.
Remarkably, despite her very public and very serious charges against the federal agency, and despite her past experience blowing the whistle on the EPA and subsequent years-long court battle to retain her position, Jenkins told Occupational Hazards magazine in 2002 that she did not fear losing her job over her comments. “All [EPA] management has to do is say, ‘Stop,’ and they haven’t,” she said, adding that as an EPA official, speaking out about lapses in the agency’s WTC effort does not require courage, just plenty of hard work.
Despite this belief, Dr. Jenkins was indeed fired from the EPA on December 30, 2010.
The firing followed a series of inane workplace incidents that resulted in suspensions and other retaliatory measures against Jenkins. The chain of events included Jenkins sending an email under the title “Op-Ed: Should EPA Institute a Workplace Fragrance Ban as Part of its Endocrine Disruptor Initiative?” after an encounter with a heavily-perfumed IT tech triggered an asthma attack in Jenkins, and her supervisor recommending that she be suspended, as the email—which was only sent to other EPA staff—”could have misled recipients as to whether it was an official EPA communication.” Eventually, the supervisor claimed that the series of incidents culminated with Jenkins threatening him in a workplace incident that was witnessed by no one.
As the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who supported Jenkins in her ordeal with the agency, summarized:
“Dr. Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist with more than three decades of agency tenure, publicly charged that due to falsified EPA standards, First Responders waded into dust so corrosive that it caused chemical burns deep within their respiratory systems. After raising the issue to the EPA Inspector General, Congress and the FBI, Dr. Jenkins was isolated, harassed and ultimately removed from her position on December 30, 2010 by EPA, based upon an un-witnessed and contested claim that the soft-spoken, petite childhood polio survivor threatened her 6-foot male supervisor.”
Continuing through a series of appeals, legal wrangling and bureaucratic red tape, Jenkins succeeded in having her employment reinstated in 2012.
AMY GOODMAN: A government whistleblower who was fired after exposing the dangers of asbestos and dust on workers at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 has been reinstated to her job following a federal court decision. Cate Jenkins, a chemist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, was the first EPA official to warn that dust in the air around the World Trade Center could pose a serious health risk. But the head of the EPA at the time claimed there was no reason for concern. Jenkins accused the EPA of intentionally hiding the dangers of air pollution at Ground Zero. She was fired in 2010. A federal court has now ruled Jenkins must be reinstated and given back pay.
SOURCE: Democracy Now, May 8, 2012
Incredibly, even this was not the end of Jenkins’ ordeal.
Instead of returning her to her daily work duties in 2012 as ordered, the EPA instead kept Jenkins on paid administrative leave and then re-filed the same charges against her in 2013. Less than a year after being ordered to give her her job back, the agency was instead trying to take it away again, saying that Jenkins had failed to prove that the EPA was retaliating for her whistleblowing.
The agency’s move was especially galling, given that Jenkins had yet to be given a chance to prove her case. Part of the reason that the EPA had been ordered to restore Jenkins to her job was because the agency had been found to have destroyed records pertaining to her case and otherwise obstructed discovery. In fact, her case that the EPA had retaliated against her for her whistleblowing was still before the Department of Labor.
The entire legal ordeal proceeded for years, finally coming to an end in 2018—a full eight years after the agency’s first attempt to fire her—when the Department of Labor confirmed a 2015 decision that the EPA had “retaliated against [Jenkins] for her reports to Congress and the FBI, and to the public through the media, about her allegations of violation of environmental laws and regulations by the EPA in connection with the rescue and cleanup operations at the WTC, in violation of the whistleblower provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.”
After nearly two decades of research and whistleblowing and almost ten years of legal nightmare, Jenkins was finally vindicated. She had been unjustly fired for attempting to call attention to the agency’s wrongdoings, and she was restored to her position.
But although this victory is to be celebrated, it comes as slim comfort to those seeking justice for the victims of 9/11, not just those killed in the buildings that day, and not just the victims of the wars that have been waged in the name of September 11th, but the victims of the toxic dust that Cate Jenkins and others have been warning about since the events unfolded.
And meanwhile, those who pushed the deadly lies about the air quality have moved on with their lives, continuing their careers and only occasionally being confronted by the independent media that is still attempting to shed light on the story.
DERRICK BROZE: Ms. Whitman, I appreciate your talk in there. You guys mentioned voting and the power of shaming voters. I feel like there’s probably a lot of folks who feel like you might need to be shamed since it’s been 17 years since 9/11 and nearly 10,000 people are now sick with 9/11-related illnesses. And I know you apologized about it two years ago and you were cleared in the courts, but all evidence points to your time in the Bush administration clearly led to people being sick and led to people getting cancer and other 9/11-related illnesses.
WHITMAN: Everything that I said was based on the best available science at the time. Science has progressed now. I think we found things that we didn’t know then. But I never said anything that wasn’t predicated on what the scientists told me. That morning—every morning—I had a conference call with the scientists: “What is safe to say? What can I say? What shouldn’t I say?” And they kept repeating that they were seeing nothing in their studies that show that there was a long-term health consequence from the air in Manhattan in general and Lower Manhattan in general.
They may not be the lies we think of when we think of the lies of 9/11—lies which led to the illegal invasion of Afghanistan and contributed to the illegal invasion of Iraq—but the EPA’s lies about the World Trade Center dust, too, have proven deadly.
And, like a Cassandra cursed with the ability to foresee a grim future that she could not prevent, Cate Jenkins spent decades of her life warning of the consequences of those lies. And for her service, she faced years of persecution. Worst of all, her warnings were dismissed until they could no longer be denied.
And there are still those who claim that 9/11 does not have its whistleblowers.
WHITMAN: To say [that] because a draft press release changes that somehow that’s nefarious manipulation is . . . It’s mind-boggling that you leap to that conclusion.