Update: Ex-EPA Chief Whitman Agrees to Testify
Ex-EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman abruptly reversed herself Friday and agreed to testify before Congress on her agency's response to the environmental fallout of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Two days ago, Whitman's lawyer Joel Kobert had denied a request from a House panel chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., for his client to testify, noting she was named in two lawsuits related to the issue.
But today, Whitman herself told Nadler in a hand-delivered letter that she was willing to participate in a hearing "if you insist."
Nadler had originally invited Whitman to testify at a May 22 hearing. In a press release today announcing Whitman's decision, Nadler said he would reschedule Whitman's hearing to a date "in the near future."
On Sept. 18, 2001, then-EPA head Whitman released a statement declaring the results from air monitoring tests in New York showed "their air is safe to breathe."
Nearly two years after the attacks, the EPA's inspector general concluded that assurance and others were based on insufficient information. The report also said that EPA press releases were softened under pressure from the White House.
Multiple studies have documented health problems amongst 9/11 emergency responders and workers.
One study released last year by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York showed more than 70 percent of Ground Zero workers suffered health ailments or severe respiratory problems.
Whitman and the EPA face lawsuits from people who claim to have been harmed by air pollutants in the lower Manhattan area resulting from the attack. In her letter to Nadler, Whitman said she did not believe "it is appropriate for me to testify about matters that are currently pending in litigation."
An appeals court ruled last month that one lawsuit against Whitman, brought by a small number of government employees, could not go forward because the EPA chief could not be held constitutionally liable for her statements in the wake of the disaster.
"Officials might default to silence in the face of the public's urgent need for information," warned Judge Dennis Jacobs.
That recent ruling may also affect a class-action suit that has been brought against Whitman by residents of lower Manhattan.
In an e-mailed statement, Nadler expressed gratitude for Whitman's decision. "There are so many unanswered questions about why certain decisions were made," said the lawmaker, whose district includes lower Manhattan.