June 26, 2007
By Devlin Barrett
WASHINGTON — The woman who led the top U.S. environmental agency during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was bombarded by boos and a host of accusations in a congressional hearing room Monday as she defended her assurances that it had been safe to breathe the air around the fallen World Trade Center.
The confrontation between Christie Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and her critics grew heated at times. Some members of the audience shouted in anger until they were gaveled down by Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes New York City.
For three hours Whitman faced charges from Nadler and others that the EPA'S public statements after the Sept. 11 terror attacks gave people a false sense of safety.
Whitman maintained the government had warned those working on the toxic debris pile that had been the World Trade Center towers to use respirators. Elsewhere in lower Manhattan, she said, the air had been safe to the general public.
"There are indeed people to blame. They are the terrorists who attacked the United States, not the men and women at all levels of government who worked heroically to protect and defend this country," Whitman said.
Since the attacks, independent government reviews have faulted the EPA's handling of the immediate aftermath and the agency's long-term cleanup program for nearby buildings.
A study of more than 20,000 people by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York concluded that, since the attacks, 70 percent of ground zero workers have suffered some respiratory illness. A separate study released last month found that rescue workers and firefighters contracted sarcoidosis, a serious lung-scarring disease, at a rate more than five times as high as in the years before the attacks.
Nadler called the hearing after years of criticizing federal officials for what he says was a negligent and incomplete cleanup.
He said the Bush administration "has continued to make false, misleading and inaccurate statements and refused to take remedial actions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence."
Whitman called such allegations "misinformation, innuendo and downright falsehoods."
Her responses were mostly calm and deliberate. But under questioning from Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, Whitman angrily raised her voice, saying she based her statements on "what I was hearing from professionals," not the whims of politicians.
Whitman pointed out that her son was in the World Trade Center complex that day, "and I almost lost him," at which point Ellison said he would not "stand here and allow you to try to obfuscate."
"I'm not obfuscating," Whitman shot back. "I have been called a liar even in this room today."
She has long insisted that her statements that the "air is safe" were aimed at those living and working near ground zero, not those who actually toiled on the toxic pile that included asbestos.
"Was it wrong to try get the city back on its feet as quickly as possible in the safest way possible? Absolutely not," she said, drawing catcalls from the crowd.
Dozens of activists and Sept. 11 rescue workers came to the hearing, and some in the audience hissed when Whitman said she felt former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration "did absolutely everything in its power to do what was right" in handling the health concerns.
Rep. Trent Franks, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee, said he worried that assigning blame to Whitman could mean, in future crises, that "officials might default to silence."