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White House fails to protect public health
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Source: TruthOut

"When the government comes across this kind of information and doesn't tell people about it, I just think it's wrong, unconscionable, not to do that," he said. "Your first obligation is to tell the people ... of the possible danger" -- Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus

White House Hushed Up Asbestos Peril Affecting Millions

By Andrew Schneider
St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Boston Globe

December 29, 2002

Last spring, the Environmental Protection Agency was on the verge of warning millions of Americans that their attics and walls might contain insulation that was contaminated with asbestos.

But at the last minute, the White House intervened. The warning has never been issued.

The agency's refusal to share its knowledge of what is believed to be a widespread health risk has been criticized by a former EPA administrator who served under two Republican presidents, and physicians and scientists who have treated victims of the contamination.

The announcement to warn the public had been expected in April.

It was to have accompanied a declaration by the EPA of a public health emergency in Libby, Mont. In that town near the Canadian border, ore from a vermiculite mine was contaminated with a lethal asbestos fiber called tremolite that has killed or sickened thousands of miners and their families.

Ore from the Libby mine was shipped around the world, and was in insulation called Zonolite that was used in millions of homes, businesses, and schools.

A public health emergency declaration had never been issued by any agency. It would have authorized the removal of the insulation from homes in Libby and provided long-term care for those made sick. Additionally, it would have triggered notification of property owners elsewhere who might be exposed to the insulation.

Zonolite insulation was sold throughout North America from the 1940s through the 1990s. Almost all of the vermiculite used came from the Libby mine, last owned by W. R. Grace & Co.

In a meeting in mid-March, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman and Marianne Horinko, head of the Superfund program, met with Paul Peronard, the EPA coordinator of the Libby cleanup.

Whitman and Horinko agreed they had to move ahead on a declaration, a participant in the meeting reported.

By early April, the declaration was ready to go. News releases had been written and rewritten. Lists of governors to call and politicians to notify had been compiled. Internal e-mail messages show that discussions had been held on whether Whitman would go to Libby for the announcement.

It was never made.

Interviews and documents show that days before EPA was set to make the declaration, the plan was thwarted by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which had been told of the proposal months earlier.

Both the OMB and the EPA acknowledge that the White House agency was involved, but neither agency would discuss how or why.

Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, who worked for Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, called the decision not to notify homeowners of the dangers posed by Zonolite insulation ''the wrong thing to do.''

''When the government comes across this kind of information and doesn't tell people about it, I just think it's wrong, unconscionable, not to do that,'' he said. ''Your first obligation is to tell the people ... of the possible danger.''

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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