Whitman: EPA Knew 9/11 Contamination Put Workers, Residents At Risk

News: At a House hearing, the former EPA head defends her decision not to warn the public; rescue worker says she should have "stood on the pile and told us how bad it was."

Source: motherjones.com

By Brian Beutler, The Media Consortium
June 27, 2007

The "rules of the House of Representatives" prohibit audience members from hoisting signs and from disrupting proceedings with applause, anger, or any other kind of outburst. To judge from his admonition to the crowd at the end of his opening statement, it seems clear that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties, suspected that Monday's proceedings might inflame emotions.

He was correct.

The hall was filled to capacity, largely with people—firefighters, police officers, and others—whose efforts atop the rubble of the World Trade Center ultimately devastated their health. Four attendees sitting near the back of the room tried to hold up pictures of relatives who had succumbed to their illnesses, but the rules prohibited even that gesture. They had come to hear Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), explain to the committee why city employees and volunteers were allowed to work amid the devastation without respirators, and why area residents were welcomed back into Lower Manhattan when evidence strongly indicated that harmful toxins still lingered both in the air and in the piles of dust and debris that had blown into apartments and businesses away from ground zero.

For nearly an hour, not a single Republican Congressman was present at the hearing, which was finally joined by ranking member Trent Franks (Ariz.) and, later, by Rep. Steve King (Iowa). Franks blamed the low turnout on the hearing's odd timing—a Monday afternoon.

The committee's inquiries focused on two main issues. Members quizzed Whitman about the EPA's efforts to inform volunteers and the public about the environmental hazard in the vicinity of the disaster site. Scientists had determined—and had informed EPA officials—that the air quality on the debris pile was harmful, and that dust from the site contained dangerous levels of asbestos and other carcinogens. But those findings were not reflected in the statements Whitman and other officials made at the time; instead, they reassured residents that the air in the neighborhood was safe, and that dust could be cleaned with wet wipes and HEPA-filtered vacuums.

Those statements were vetted by the White House (through the National Security Council), whose explicit interest was to allow commerce and investment to continue in and around Wall Street. At the hearing, Whitman downplayed the significance of a call she had received from a Bush economic adviser who was seeking to reopen the stock market in short order. "We weren't going to let the terrorists win," she noted, prompting the second of several illicit uproars from the audience, despite Nadler's order. She reiterated her contention that the area outside the rubble pile—enclosed by a so-called "green line"—was safe for inhabitants.

In response, Rep. Nadler suggested that since the law requires asbestos to be disposed of professionally, and that since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had already concluded that dust in the area contained asbestos, implying that residents could safely dispose of that dust themselves might have been a "crime." Whitman ultimately did recommend the use of professional cleaners—in late October, a month and a half after the attacks.

The other point of contention concerned the workers themselves. Few of them were provided with the shoulder-borne respirators that would have protected them from asbestos, pulverized concrete and other contaminants.

John Henshaw, who headed OSHA at the time, testified that his office could not compel rescue workers in Manhattan to wear respirators because they were city employees—police officers and firefighters under the purview of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's office, which had not mandated respirators. According to experts at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, today nearly three-quarters of 9/11 first responders have contracted some kind of illness, usually respiratory and often chronic.

At one point, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) suggested that Whitman, who claims she knew how deadly the inhalants were, could have wrested control of the clean-up effort from the city and insisted that all workers use respirators, as was the standard at the Pentagon. Whitman struggled to address the point, suggesting that she wasn't then certain that she had a legal basis for such a drastic step. She added that she didn't believe the public would have accepted such an incursion from the federal government.

Outside the hearing room, I spoke with several members of the World Trade Center Rescuers Foundation; officers, firefighters, and EMTs who say they have been forced to retire by of debilitating illnesses caused by their work on the pile. None were impressed with Whitman's performance. Retired Lieutenant Bill Gleason of the New York Fire Department, thin and pale, told me he suffers from hyper-reactive airway disorder. He said he takes $7,000 worth of medication every month and has had seven surgeries—including on his sinuses, lungs, and appendix—since 2002. Detective Michael Valentine, who left the pile in early 2002 and was stationed in neighborhood precincts for three years thereafter, suffers from lymphatic tumors. Both men are under 50, and both claimed that, contrary to the testimony they'd just listened to, working with a full respirator would have been no trouble had they known just what was in the air. Valentine said he never saw an EPA representative during four months at the site, nor was he asked to take preventive measures.

"She blamed the victim," said Gleason. "If she had stood on the pile and told us how bad it was, she could have saved tens of thousands." Instead, Whitman—who emphasized at the hearing that in a war-like situation it was important "to speak with one voice"—toed the administration's, and Giuliani's, line. As a result, argued Suzanne Mattei, a former New York City Sierra Club executive present at the hearing, the EPA "encouraged people to ignore their own common sense. The air looked bad and smelled bad. Using common sense, many people would have guessed that the air was unsafe for themselves and their children. … The sad irony is that if the EPA had said nothing at all, the public would probably have been better off."