Air of Truth

July 8, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
Air of Truth

IN her recent testimony before the House subcommittee that I lead, Christie Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, played a shell game intended to create confusion about the federal government’s failure to protect rescue workers and others in New York after the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11.

In the days after the attacks, the agency repeatedly gave blanket assurances about air quality. For example, Mrs. Whitman said on Sept. 18, 2001, that she was “glad to reassure the people of New York” that “their air is safe to breathe.” Such broad assurances contradicted government tests Mrs. Whitman had showing dangerous levels of asbestos both on the World Trade Center site — the so-called pile — and in surrounding neighborhoods. She now says that her statements referred to air quality in Lower Manhattan generally, not to air quality on the pile where rescue personnel were working.

But Mrs. Whitman’s very first post-9/11 press release, issued on Sept. 13, stated that “monitoring and sampling conducted” had been “very reassuring about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants.” If the heart of her defense is that she warned workers of the dangers on the pile and at the same time separately and responsibly reassured residents, this statement undermines both claims. Frankly, the idea that there was a distinction to be made — that the toxic air and dust from the pile was somehow blocked from the residential and commercial buildings across the street — strains credibility.

Most important, though, her falsely reassuring statements were made at a time when she could not be sure that anyone, on or off the pile, was safe. Her pronouncements contradicted the scant scientific data available. Indeed, 25 percent of the agency’s own dust samples showed asbestos levels even above the 1 percent threshold that the E.P.A. had arbitrarily set, and that was later debunked by the agency’s inspector general who said that no level of asbestos was safe. In addition to the E.P.A.’s testing, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection was showing that 70 percent of ambient air samples contained dangerous levels of asbestos. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Sept. 12 that very little was known about other deadly substances likely to be in the air and dust.

With more testing, it became clear the air was far from safe, but pressure from the White House kept that information from the public. A Sept. 14 draft of an E.P.A. press release referred to tests showing elevated asbestos levels and expressed concern for workers at the cleanup site and for employees who would be returning to their offices “on or near Water Street” on Sept. 17. The White House deleted that warning and replaced it with: “Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s financial district.”

For average New Yorkers living and working downtown, it was an outright lie; for rescue workers, it was a lie of omission. Mrs. Whitman testified that while the E.P.A. consulted with the White House on all press releases, neither she nor her top staff members knew who in the White House gave final approval for the changes.

In her testimony, Mrs. Whitman attempted to further confuse the public by making spurious distinctions like implying that high levels of asbestos in dust would have no effect on the safety of breathing the air. But the record is clear: in instance after instance following the attack on the World Trade Center, Mrs. Whitman gave irresponsible reassurances, either over the objections of scientists urging her to wait for more data or in contravention of clear evidence before her.

No wonder the E.P.A.’s own inspector general concluded that the agency’s early statements about air quality were falsely reassuring, lacked a scientific basis and were motivated by White House concerns other than public health — and that, as a result, people were unnecessarily exposed to deadly contaminants. To this day, according to the Government Accountability Office, the E.P.A. cannot reasonably conclude that a single building in Lower Manhattan is free of pollutants from the collapse of the towers.

We must ascertain why the federal government failed to protect the public and worsened a calamity. And we must provide for a proper inspection and cleanup of indoor spaces contaminated by the World Trade Center collapse and for long-term, comprehensive health care for the thousands of people who are already ill as a result of exposure to the pollutants.

Perhaps the most shocking data Mrs. Whitman selectively ignored when she testified was a 2006 Mount Sinai Hospital study that shows 70 percent of the first 9,000 workers examined reported some kind of respiratory problem after working on the pile. Thousands of people are suffering, at least in part, because of our government’s failures following 9/11, yet those responsible ignore the outcome just as they ignored the warnings.

And, just days after our hearing, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Environmental Protection Agency used the same playbook of lies about asbestos and air quality in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, four years after 9/11.

We can’t change history, but it is our government’s responsibility to admit mistakes and plan better for the future. Mrs. Whitman’s refusal to assume any culpability for error does nothing to ensure the same won’t happen again. Indeed, it may already have.

Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, is a representative whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Air of Truth

I have changed my mind about the new format being used here on 9/11 blogger. I recieved an e-mail from this site the other day asking me to re-write one of my posts. I used the word "Fools" and it obviously was not to the likeing of the moderator. The "Air of Truth" is that this once great web site has become the exact thing we have been fighting, That is speaking our minds. Letting people know what we think. I think the 9/11 truth movement will do just fine without 9/11 blogger. This will be my last post ever on this site. I just wanted to say goodby and good luck to all my fellow truthers. This site has become nothing more than a MSM outlet.

Where to go from here?

Since the lawsuit against the EPA, and against Todd Whitman herself, got squashed, I find it tough to think of a next step. We simply do not have justice or accountability here.

Any ideas?