Documents Suggest Doubt About 9/11 Air Quality

ByCHRIS FRANCESCANI, ABC News Law & Justice Unit

Sept. 8, 2006 — -- New documents obtained by ABC News indicate city agencies were divided over whether it was safe to open certain areas around ground zero to the public at a time when New York and federal officials were assuring the community that the air from the fires burning at ground zero in the critical weeks after 9/11 were not a health hazard.

In an Oct. 6, 2001, internal memo, New York City Health Department Associate Commissioner Kelly McKinney writes that the city's Office of Emergency Management was sharply at odds with the Department of Environmental Protection over whether the air was safe enough to reopen the area to the public.

"The mayor's office is under pressure from building owners and business owners in the red zone to open more of the city to occupancy," McKinney wrote. "According to the OEM, some city blocks north and south of Ground Zero are suitable for reoccupancy. DEP believes the air quality is not yet suitable for reoccupancy. I was told the mayor's office was directing OEM to open the target areas next week."

McKinney now works for the city's Office of Emergency Management.

McKinney referred an ABC News inquiry to an OEM spokesman, who did not return a call for comment.

On Oct. 3, 2001, then-city Commissioner for Environmental Protection Joel Miele reportedly told hundreds of anxious residents of downtown Manhattan that the dust and debris from the collapse were "not a health concern."

McKinney's memo goes on to complain that the "EPA has been very slow to make [air test] data results available and to date has not sufficiently informed … the public of air quality issues arising from this disaster."

The following week, at a news conference outside Mount Sinai Medical Center after a keynote speech she gave at an asthma summit, then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman said, "The good news continues to be that the air samples have all been at levels that cause us no concern."

The McKinney memo's authenticity was acknowledged to ABC News by a former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani administration official who requested anonymity.

A spokesman for Giuliani referred an inquiry to former deputy Mayor for Operations Joe Lhota, who said in a statement that the "EPA publicly reported that the general air quality was safe and the City repeatedly instructed workers on the pile to use their respirators."

Whitman and the EPA have come under fire from a variety of different camps in the years since the World Trade Center attacks, including from an investigator for the agency's own ombudsman, Robert J. Martin.

An EPA Inspector General's report issued in August 2003 found that the EPA "did not have sufficient data" to make the "blanket" statement on Sept. 18 that the air was "safe."

"A definitive answer to whether the air was safe to breathe may not be settled for years to come."

But the EPA appears to have been taking direction from the White House, according to the report.

The report found that the White House Council on Environmental Quality had "influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that the EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

According to the report, White House officials deleted a statement in an EPA news release that read: "Concern raised by these samples would be for the workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street on Monday, September 17, 2001."

"The readings [in lower Manhattan] were showing us that there was nothing that gave us any concern about long-term health implications," Whitman said to "60 Minutes" in an interview to air Sunday.

"That was different from on the pile itself, at ground zero. There, we always said consistently, 'You've got to wear protective gear.'"

Whitman said that widespread criticism of her public comments about air quality had hurt her feelings.

"The last thing in the world that I would ever do would be to put people at risk. Of all the criticisms that I had in my career … this is by far the most personally troubling. You want to say, 'You're wrong.' We never lied," she said.

A spokeswoman for the New York regional office of the EPA denied the accusation that the agency had not been sufficiently diligent in disseminating accurate information about air quality.

"We released the results as soon we got them," said the EPA's Mary Mears. "We did everything we could to keep the public and the press aware" of what she characterized as a rapidly changing situation involving dozens of overlapping city, state and federal agencies.

The issue of who knew what and when has re-emerged after a startling study released Tuesday by Mount Sinai Medical Center, which found that 70 percent of first responders had developed respiratory problems or exacerbated preexisting ones, and that 61 percent had developed new lung problems.

City police and firefighters and other first responders have long complained that they were not adequately protected by their city.

Thousands are suing the city in a massive class-action lawsuit.

The nonprofit New York Environmental Law & Justice Project has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the EPA, alleging that Whitman made materially misleading statements about air quality that endangered the lives of downtown Manhattan residents and ground zero workers.

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