Sen. Hillary Clinton says she’ll block President Bush’s nominee for chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (search) because the EPA allegedly misled New Yorkers about health risks after the Sep. 11 attacks.

It apparently doesn’t matter to Sen. Clinton that the president’s nominee, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (search), was governor of Utah at the time and had no connection to the EPA’s post-attack response. Other facts about the alleged post-attack health risks don’t seem to matter to her, either.

What does seem to be important to Sen. Clinton is politics; she’s exploiting the Sep. 11 attacks as a smokescreen to attack the president on the environment and his choice to head the EPA.

The EPA announced a week after the attacks that the air near ground zero (search) was “safe” to breathe. With the exception of some rescue workers who were overexposed to fumes and dust emanating from the wreckage, the EPA’s assurance seems to have been correct.

There have been no credible reports that the ambient air quality near ground zero (search) a week after the attacks caused any significant, wide-spread or long-term harms.

An EPA risk evaluation completed a year after the attacks concluded that, after the first few days, ambient air levels were unlikely to cause short-term or long-term health effects to the general population.

Nevertheless, the EPA’s inspector general reported in August that the agency “did not have sufficient data to make such a blanket statement” and that the agency gave New Yorkers misleading assurances about potential health risks from the air pollution generated by the World Trade Center collapse (search).

According to the report, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (search) “influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”

The IG report dismissed the EPA’s year-after risk evaluation because the agency doesn’t know how much air pollution people were exposed to or the health status of the exposed population before the attacks.

This criticism is absurd because such data are impossible to obtain and because they’re not necessary.

There didn’t seem to be any pollution-related health problems then, there don’t seem to be any pollution-related health problems now, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that any pollution-related health problems will develop in the future among the general public.  

The idea that the White House inappropriately pressured the EPA by “influencing” the agency through the “collaborative” process is wrongheaded.

The EPA chief reports directly to the president. To say that the White House can’t influence, much less order the EPA to take a particular course of action would be to elevate the agency to a separate branch of government, on a par with the president, Congress and Supreme Court.

Moreover, in a time of national emergency, the White House should be directing the EPA. It’s not clear an agency that spends most of its time chasing imaginary or infinitesimal risks to health from the usual environment is equipped to operate without adult supervision in an emergency.

Finally, the real purpose behind Sen. Clinton’s block of Leavitt’s nomination is to embarrass the president on the environment and perhaps even to pressure the president to withdraw Leavitt in favor of a nominee more to the liking of the eco-extremist community.

President Bush nominated Leavitt as a political moderate and a consensus builder. "He respects the ability of state and local government to meet [environmental] standards. He rejects the old ways of command and control from above," said the president.

The eco-nuts, in contrast, say Leavitt represents a “hard right turn on the environment.”

There may also be some political payback occurring. Gov. Leavitt was a prominent supporter of Rep. Rick Lazio in the 2000 New York Senate race (search). Gov. Leavitt, for example, signed an August 2000 fund-raising letter for Lazio stating, “We firmly believe that Rick Lazio can defeat Hillary Clinton and it's important to America that he do so.”

Oh, and did I mention that the EPA inspector general is an appointee of the Clinton administration?

City and federal health officials started a project last week to track the health histories of 200,000 people exposed to pollution from the World Trade Center. For the same reason that the GAO criticized the EPA’s year-after risk evaluation, this project is a waste of time and money.

If Sen. Clinton feels the need to “block” something, that project would be a good start.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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