EPA scientist who warned of caustic dust from Ground Zero wins job back

A government scientist sacked for exposing the dangers to firefighters from the caustic air at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 got her job back on Monday.

A federal court ordered that Cate Jenkins, a chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency, be reinstated to her job with back pay.

Her lawyer said the decision, although based on matters of legal process, amounted to vindication for Jenkins’s claims that the EPA had covered up the danger posed to first responders and others in lower Manhattan from the asbestos and highly corrosive dust that rose from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

It was also a rare victory for whistleblowers, said lawyer Paula Dinerstein. “This doesn’t happen that often.”

Jenkins, who has spent more than 30 years at the EPA, was the first agency official to warn of the dangers of the caustic dust rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

The dust, which had dangerously high pH levels, was so corrosive it caused chemical burns to the lungs of firefighters and other rescue teams. Hundreds of workers spent weeks at the scene without protective gear such as respirators.

Subsequent research has shown as many as two-thirds suffered permanent lung damage.

Medical experts now believe much of the health effects could have been prevented if workers were issued proper safety gear.

At the time, however, Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the EPA, claimed there were no readings to indicate a health hazard. Whitman has since said the Bush administration did not want to cause panic.

But Jenkins accused the EPA of deliberately concealing the dangers. She noted that the EPA had been downplaying the air quality hazards from such rubble since the 1980s, and that European standards were far more stringent.

After repeating the charges to Congress, Jenkins was harrassed by her superiors. She was eventually sacked in late 2010 after being accused of physically threatening her supervisor.

Jenkins, who is a polio survivor, has a petite frame. Her male supervisor is over six feet tall.

In its decision, the Merit Systems Protection Board said Jenkins had been wrongly denied her right to due process on a number of counts.

The ruling marks the second time in her long career that Jenkins has fought the EPA – and won.

In the 1990s, she was transferred out of her job after accusing Monsanto of falsifying a study on the cancer risk from exposure to Agent Orange. An administrative judge later ruled she had been wrongly transferred.