Ex-EPA Administrator Grilled Over Her Role in 9/11 Illnesses

WASHINGTON, DC, June 26, 2007 (ENS) - When the hijacked planes hit New York's World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman was serving as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Monday, she was examined by a Congressional panel about whether the actions of her agency caused the exposure of thousands of people to hazardous dust from the collapse of the twin towers.

A former New Jersey governor, Christine Todd Whitman headed the U.S. EPA from 2001 to 2003. (Photo courtesyWhitman Strategy Group)
In the face of boos from the crowd in the packed hearing room, Whitman told members of a House Judiciary subcommittee that she and the U.S. EPA staff cared very much about those caught at Ground Zero. In fact, Whitman said, her own son was one of those in the World Trade Center that day. "I almost lost him," she said.

The hearing was called by Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who represents the district where the World Trade Center once stood.

"In the six years since the attacks," Nadler said, "we have accumulated a mountain of evidence that tens of thousands of those exposed are suffering from chronic respiratory disease, and, increasingly, a variety of rare cancers. The sick includes 10,000 firefighters."

"The deaths of at least two individuals - James Zadroga and Felicia Dunn-Jones, whose family joins us today - have been linked unquestionably by government medical examiners to World Trade Center dust," Nadler said.

A study of 9,500 World Trade Center responders by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York issued last September found that, since the attacks, 70 percent had a new or worsened respiratory symptom that developed during or after their time working at Ground Zero.

Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The hearing examined whether the federal government, by its actions, violated the "substantive due process" rights of first responders, local residents, students and workers.

New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Specifically," said Nadler in his opening statement, "did the federal government itself, by responding inadequately or improperly to the environmental impacts - knowingly do bodily harm to its citizens, and thereby violate their constitutional rights? And, if so, which government actors were responsible?"

Following the attacks, Whitman repeatedly assured New Yorkers that the air was "safe to breathe." On September 18, 2001, she said that results of EPA tests of the air and drinking water near the World Trade Center and Pentagon disaster sites indicate "little risk to rescue workers or the public."

"We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air quality and drinking water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances," Whitman said that day. "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breath and their water is safe to drink."

On Monday, Whitman told the Judiciary subcommittee that she stands by those statements.

Whitman defended herself against accusations by the Democratic members of the panel that the EPA revised press releases to be more reassuring and altered scientific warnings that the air around the toppled towers was hazardous at the behest of a White House that wanted to minimize disruption of the economy.

"Was it wrong to try get the city back on its feet as quickly as possible in the safest way possible? Absolutely not," Whitman said, to outcries from the audience that Nadler gaveled down.

She said that while daily conference calls took place with White House staff from the National Security Council and the Coucil on Environmental Quality in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the White House did not change her press releases except in one instance.

In that case, Whitman said, the White House removed the EPA's recommendation that nearby residents have their apartments cleaned professionally.

Samuel Thernstrom, now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was director of communications for the White House Council on Environmental Quality on September 11, 2001.

Samuel Thernstrom was communications director with the White House Council on Environmental Quality in September 2001. (Photo courtesy AEI)
He told the panel the White House had changed the EPA's press releases. " When we revised EPA's drafts to make them more reassuring, I believed they reflected the EPA's views too," Thernstrom said.

He pointed out that the bipartisan September 11th Commission found that there was no improper White House influence. The Commission declared "my role was proper" and that "I did not influence Whitman's decision to declare the air 'safe,'" he said.

Nadler said, the Bush administration’s "continuing lack of responsiveness" in the face of thousands of people who are sick "stems directly, I believe, from a desire to cover up its misstatements and misdeeds in the early days after the attacks."

"The administration has continued to provide false, misleading and inaccurate statements, and refused to take remedial actions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, so that it would not have to admit that it failed to follow applicable laws and to utilize basic precautionary principles in the first place," Nadler said.

Whitman called these allegations "misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods."

In a 2003 report, the EPA’s Inspector General, IG, found that Whitman's statements that the air was safe were falsely reassuring, lacked a scientific basis, and were politically motivated. The IG said, "When the EPA made a[n] announcement that the air was ‘safe’ to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement."

Nadler said the EPA conducted "two so-called 'indoor cleanups' that the IG, EPA’s own scientific advisory panel, and, now, the Government Accountability Office, all found lacked a proper scientific basis and failed to ensure the proper de-contamination of tens of thousands of residences and workplaces."

The response of other federal agencies was similarly inadequate, Nadler said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, failed to enforce workplace safety regulations on the "pile" that was the remains of the World Trade Center, said Nadler.

Federal Emergency Management Agency worker searches for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center. September 16, 2001. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)
But OSHA did enforce the regulations at the Pentagon, also struck by a terrorist plane on 9/11. There every worker was required to wear respirators and nobody has become sick, Nadler said.

Whitman said EPA staff warned responders to wear their negative pressure breathing masks, but that responders often did not wear them because the masks were cumbersome and the responders had not been trained in their use.

Witness David Newman faulted the federal agencies for the serious health impacts resulting from exposure to toxics at and near Ground Zero. "Neither the EPA nor OSHA enforced their regulations, and I think that was inappropriate and possibly criminal," he said.

An industrial hygienist on staff of the New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health, Newman is a member of the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel convened by the EPA.

He told the subcommittee that high levels of carcinogenic dioxins were found several blocks from Ground Zero, but the EPA did not release this information for more than a year after the test results were in.

Nadler expressed concern that OSHA allowed indoor workers to re-occupy workplaces that had not been properly tested and cleaned.

The sun streams through the dust cloud at Ground Zero. September 13, 2001. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, refused to pay for testing and cleanup of indoor spaces, "a cost that was much too prohibitive for most residents and small businesses," said Nadler, adding that FEMA also denied payments to residents to stay elsewhere even when their homes were full of World Trade Center dust.

New York city and state government officials allowed re-occupation of buildings - including schools - that not been properly tested and decontaminated, advising people to clean asbestos-containing dust in their homes and workplaces with a "wet mop and a wet rag."

Nadler said this "illegal and unsafe advice" was endorsed by the EPA and posted on its website.

"Hundreds of thousand of people, not wanting to imagine that their government could act with such reckless disregard for their welfare, believed the false assurances, and continued to work on the pile with inadequate Personal Protective Equipment and returned to their homes, schools and workplaces that had not been properly tested and cleaned - and have still not been."

Whitman countered that the government staffers acted to the best of their abilities and were not to blame for the thousands of people who now are ill.

"There are indeed people to blame," Whitman said. "They are the terrorists who attacked the United States, not the men and women at all levels of government who worked heroically to protect and defend this country."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.