June 25, 2007 -- Christie Todd Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, appeared on Capitol Hill Monday to try to save her reputation amid charges that she gave the public false information immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks about the air quality at the site of the former World Trade Center, saying it was safe.
"There was an environment in the period after Sept 11 where many things that were told to us by our government turned out to be wrong," charged Rep Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. "Perhaps none were so damaging to the health and the lives of the people in New York City than the ones that were made by our witness here today."
But Whitman insisted that criticism of her was not fair. "Let's be clear. There are people to blame. They are the terrorists who attacked the United States," she said. "Not the men and woman at all levels of government who worked heroically to protect this country."
The toxic cloud that formed after the towers fell may have since evaporated, but its effects still linger. Over the past five years, thousands of rescue and recovery workers who worked at the site of the World Trade Center have been discovered to suffer from grave and debilitating respiratory illness.
In New York, Mount Sinai Medical Center's World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program indicates that after their work at Ground Zero almost 70 percent of the various workers on the former World Trade Center site --police officiers, firefighters, construction workers -- developed a new or worsened respiratory symptom.
In 2006 for the first time, a New Jersey coroner ruled that Detective James Zadroga died of a respiratory disease "directly linked" to 9/11, and last month the New York City coroner made a similar ruling after the death of a 42-year old attorney, Felicia Dunn Jones, who was enveloped by World Trade Center dust.
At issue is whether Whitman and the EPA did enough to warn workers about the danger of the air. Two days after the terrorist attacks, Whitman said that officials had checked the air quality at the World Trade Center site and found that asbestos, lead and volatile organic compounds were below "any level of concern for the general public health." The EPA and the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Association issued a statement Sept. 14 declaring the air "safe."
But today Whitman said, "I do not agree that our statement gave people a false sense of safety."
"These were not decisions by a politician," she said under pointed questioning by Rep Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "Everything I said was based on what I was hearing from professionals."
Her voice rising, Whitman said that her "son was in Building 7 that day. I almost lost him, and I would never lie to the public ever."
A 2003 study by the EPA's inspector general concluded that "EPA's early public statements following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers reassured the public regarding the safety of the air outside the Ground Zero area. However, when the EPA announced on Sept. 18 that the air was "safe"to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement."
But Whitman maintained she did nothing wrong, and that she provided the public with air quality data on the EPA's Web site, and safety equipment to Ground Zero rescue and recovery personnel.
Despite prehearing comments in which she seemed to blame former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for emergency responders not wearing the proper safety equipment, Whitman backed away from criticizing the Republican presidential candidate. "I don't think that the mayor is blaming me. I'm certainly not blaming the mayor," she said. "I don't think that's a fruitful thing for me to engage in."