The gigantic plumes of smoke from the collapse of the Twin Towers made Manhattan look post-apocalyptic. Ground Zero released fumes until mid-December. How could breathing in this dust be anything but harmful?
Yet a week after 9/11, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time told the public that this air was safe to breathe.
Dr. Cate Jenkins knew this wasn’t true. A chemist who has worked at the EPA since 1979, Jenkins accused the EPA and City of NY of falsifying asbestos levels and standards. She also alleged that they knowingly covered up how toxic the dust was. She sent these complaints to her supervisors and others at the EPA, the EPA Inspector General’s office, members of Congress, the FBI, state officials and elected representatives, law firms representing World Trade Center (WTC) first responders, citizens, and the media – leaving no stone unturned.
When nothing changed, in 2006 Jenkins sent a 60-page memo to the EPA Inspector General detailing the chemical composition of the dust. In addition to rehashing previous allegations, she offered up proof of criminal fraud. Again she shared this information with Congress and the FBI.
According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), she publicly charged that due to “falsified EPA standards, First Responders waded into dust so corrosive that it caused chemical burns deep within their respiratory system.”
Even though it seems absurd that Jenkins would have reason to lie, especially with so many lives at stake, the EPA continued to defend its work. The EPA said that Jenkins – whose position in the office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response – hadn’t been a part of its work on the WTC. The agency actually said that its issue with her was merely a disagreement about scientific methods.
Working at the EPA had become awkward, to say the least. PEER stated that “Jenkins was isolated, harassed, and ultimately removed from her position on December 30, 2010 based upon an un-witnessed claim that the soft-spoken, petite childhood polio survivor threatened her 6-foot male supervisor.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. was woefully behind when it came to corrosivity standards. The United Nations has adopted them since 1970, and the European Union and Canada already follow them. PEER attorneys filed on Jenkins’ behalf demanding that the EPA tighten its standards as well so that responders would know to use the right kind of equipment to prevent damage.
In May 2012 came a unanimous ruling from the Merit Systems Protection Board that Jenkins’ job be reinstated and back pay given with interest. PEER called this a win for all federal whistleblowers, as it strengthened key safeguards.
Despite this, the EPA kept Jenkins on paid administrative leave for over a year before re-filing charges against her in August of 2013. The Merit board had ruled that the EPA couldn’t do this if Jenkins established that the charges were in retaliation for her whistleblowing and was given the opportunity to do so.
Five years later, in March 2018, Jenkins was finally exonerated after proving that the EPA had no basis for re-filing charges. The Department of Labor Administrative Review Board affirmed the April 2015 recommended decision, which found that the EPA fired Jenkins because of her whistleblowing. Because the EPA withheld over 1,000 key documents during discovery and destroyed emails and documents from the official who proposed Jenkins’ termination, not only was earlier testimony refuted, this was considered evidence of retaliation and “egregious misconduct.”
This makes Jenkins the only federal employee to have won not one but two whistleblower suits against an agency over two different issues of public concern. That’s right – in 1990, Jenkins disclosed that the Monsanto studies were incorrectly done and failed to show the existing connection between dioxin (which affects Vietnam veterans and others exposed to Agent Orange) and cancer in humans. This is what launched a criminal investigation of Monsanto by the EPA, but not before Jenkins was fired. Spoiler alert: She won the case and was reinstated.
It’s well known now that the dust from 9/11 was indeed toxic. In 2016, Newsweek reported that doctors with the World Trade Center Health Program have linked nearly 70 types of cancer to Ground Zero. Many are rare, aggressive and especially hard to treat and include almost all lung diseases. As many as 400,000 people are estimated to be affected by diseases and mental illnesses linked to 9/11. This is 10 percent higher than the rest of the population, with firefighters and emergency medical technicians showing cancer rates 19-30 percent higher than pre-9/11 rates.
Which is why it’s ironic that Jenkins was called a notorious whistleblower in the WTC case. The irony is compounded by the EPA’s concession that she didn’t violate any ethics rules and never leaked any internal information, including ones that could be classified as confidential or secret. Cate Jenkins: The whistleblower who was vindicated – not once, but twice.