Christie Whitman has her story and she’s sticking to it. Her story is that she’s proud of how she responded to 9/11 as Environmental Protection
Agency chief. Her story is that she fully and truthfully informed New Yorkers about the health hazards generated by the collapse of the World Trade Center.
She has told this fable for almost six years now, and she amplified it yesterday before Rep. Jerry Nadler’s subcommittee. Whitman was the soul of indignant defiance, and her testimony – under oath, no less – was an insult to the truth, as well as to the rescue workers, residents and everyone else who believed her false assurances that the air was safe.
Officials who were called to duty in the aftermath of the terror attack are owed gratitude for service well done and leeway for errors committed under battlefield conditions. But Whitman has exhausted all understanding by insistently denying the reality that she allowed thousands of people to be exposed needlessly to airborne, lung-scarring toxins.
Central to Whitman’s story are two claims, one having to do with the air downtown, and one having to do with the air over Ground Zero, where the pulverized Trade Center dust was thickest.
Whitman says that in pronouncing the air breathable she was speaking only about the atmosphere in the surrounding neighborhood, not about the air over The Pile. She says she was clear about this distinction and that her assertions were based on valid testing data.
But the EPA inspector general concluded that Whitman lacked the scientific basis for declaring the air safe anywhere. What’s more, there were times when Whitman drew the distinction between dangers faced by rescue and recovery workers and those faced by area residents – and there were times when she did not.
Here is Whitman’s Sept. 13, 2001, press release: “Monitoring and sampling conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday have been very reassuring about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants.”
Given such a statement and Whitman’s subsequent muted cautions about Ground Zero perils, those rescue crews, thousands of whom are ill, can be forgiven for accepting the notion that it was okay to labor without wearing full-scare respirators. But Whitman cannot be forgiven for failing to insist, loudly and with the complete authority of her office, that everybody on the site needed full protection once the emergency had passed. Many others, up to and including then-Mayor Giuliani, were similarly negligent.
As for Whitman’s assurances about air quality over lower Manhattan, the best way to judge their validity is to consider what has happened to people who lived and worked there. Right now, the World Trade Center health clinic at Bellevue Hospital is treating 1,300 of them for respiratory ailments that came on after 9/11 – and the number is growing by the week.
The clinic’s director, Dr. Joan Reibman, says many of the clinic’s patients were caught in the dust cloud when the towers fell and returned to the area a week or so later. Others belonged to work crews that were brought in to clean up buildings.
In her own congressional testimony in February, Reibman said, “We know that many residents and workers of downtown Manhattan were subjected to environmental insults on a large scale and many will require continued screening and treatment for years to come.”
While stressing that authorities have not done epidemiological studies, Reibman says she believes that after being subsumed by the dust cloud “many people went back to areas that were inadequately cleaned” and were “exposed repeatedly to lower levels” of toxins.
Those are the facts. Whitman’s testimony was fiction.
1. Christie shows more than 2 faces
2. I’m not to blame for ill workers
3. Why didn’t they warn us, asks 9/11 hero
4. Screwing up her courage
5. Christie blasts Rudy on WTC air
6. Christie won’t clear air on mess at Ground Zero
7. Damning questions Whitman must be made to answer