N.Y. Democrats Renew Call for Whitman Investigation

Sept. 18, 2006
Three New York congressmen yesterday sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez asking him to appoint a special prosecutor to determine whether criminal charges are warranted against former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who shortly after Sept. 11 gave workers and residents of Lower Manhattan the green light to return.

The letter, penned by U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Anthony Weiner and Bill Pascrell Jr., points to the mounting evidence that many of the estimated 40,000 people who worked on the pile at Ground Zero are suffering from or have suffered from lung ailments and other illnesses. Four responders have died allegedly from exposure to World Trade Center dust particles.

"Christie Whitman repeatedly declared the air safe, and now thousands of people are sick, and some have died, from World Trade Center contamination," Nadler said.

The letter asserts that Nadler first called for a special investigation into Whitman's response to World Trade Center hazards in 2003, but since then new evidence has been uncovered "that highlights the need for a special counsel."

Specifically, the letter points to a February ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts in response to a civil suit filed on behalf of residents, students and workers in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn against EPA, Whitman and other current and former EPA officials. Batts, who wrote that in her opinion, "Whitman's deliberate and misleading statements made to the press" … "shocks the conscience," ruled that the plaintiffs' lawsuit against Whitman and the U.S. government can go forward.

"Whitman knew that the consequences of the terrorists' actions, namely causing the collapse of the World Trade Center, included the emission of tons of hazardous materials into the air," Batts wrote. "It is at this point, when the harmful emissions created a danger to the public that Whitman, knowing the likely harm to those exposed to the hazardous materials, encouraged residents, workers and students to return to the area."

'Their Air is Safe to Breathe'

In a Sept. 18, 2001, press release issued by EPA – one of several the agency issued after 9/11 reassuring the public about the results of hazard monitoring tests at and near Ground Zero – Whitman was quoted as saying: "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

The same press release later points out that EPA was working closely with OSHA and the Department of Defense "to evaluate air and drinking water quality and to be certain that the workplace environment will be safe."

With the 5-year anniversary of 9/11 earlier this month, such statements have rekindled sharp criticism from the likes of Weiner.

"Christie Whitman lied to the public about the health hazards at Ground Zero and endangered lives," Weiner said. "We must ensure that the accountability for these actions is not lost in a cloud of finger-pointing. Only with the appointment of a special prosecutor with subpoena power can an independent investigation occur and, if necessary, criminal charges be brought against those responsible."

Reassurances Were for Not for Ground Zero

As early as 2002, doubts were emerging as to the veracity of claims made by EPA and other agencies that the area near Ground Zero did not pose an unreasonable health risk to those working, living and attending school in the area.

In a series of articles on Occupationalhazards.com in January 2002, EPA employee Cate Jenkins said parts of Lower Manhattan should be designated a Superfund site. Jenkins, who questioned EPA's asbestos testing and monitoring techniques, claimed that a risk assessment she performed in December 2001 at Ground Zero revealed a risk of cancer comparable or higher to that found in Libby, Mont., where W.R. Grace operated an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine for three decades.

Whitman, appearing on CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sept. 10, 2006, told Couric that her reassurances to the public in the wake of 9/11 referred to the ambient air quality in Lower Manhattan – not at Ground Zero, where "we always said consistently, 'You got to wear protective gear.'"

Couric then told Whitman that a number of the first responders interviewed by "60 Minutes" "told us all they heard was the air is safe and it gave them a false sense of security. Do you think you emphasized it enough in hindsight?"

Whitman answered: "You know, it's hard to know when people … hear what they wanna hear. And there's so much going on that maybe they didn't make the distinction."

Nadler yesterday said Whitman's comments on "60 Minutes" added "insult to injury."

"[S]he just went on '60 Minutes' and tried to blame everybody else for her misdeeds," Nadler said. "She must be held accountable."

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