Volume 20 Issue 7 | June 29 - July 5, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

At about 7 a.m. Monday, Downtowners, eager for answers from Christine Todd Whitman, the former E.P.A. administrator, crossed Warren St. to board a bus to attend a Congressional hearing in Washington.

Whitman grilling draws crowds, critics and few answers

By Skye H. McFarlane

It was not yet 7 a.m. when a group of 9/11 health advocates gathered on Warren St. Monday morning, headed for the Washington D.C. hearing in which U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler would question former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman about her role in the controversial cleanup that followed the World Trade Center attacks.

Clutching cups of coffee, the mix of activists, residents and Downtown workers slowly filed onto their charter bus, dubbed the “Come Clean Express.” They brought with them doctors’ reports and protest signs, a documentary film crew — and a guitar.

“If you are going to keep at a movement like this for five years until something gets done, you have to have a little fun, a little levity once in a while,” said Bob Gulack, an attorney who developed lung problems after returning to work Downtown in October 2001. Gulack said that over the years, the tight-knit group of activists has penned a few protest songs, which he planned to play on the ride to Capitol Hill.

Activists hoping that Whitman would change her tune about the quality of the post-9/11 air in Lower Manhattan, however, were out of luck. Whitman and other former E.P.A. staffers stood by their original statements that outside of ground zero itself, the air was safe to breath.

They also asserted that changes made to E.P.A. press releases by the Bush administration were “not substantial” and that both the E.P.A. and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did everything they could to encourage recovery workers to wear respirators and urge local residents to have their apartments professionally cleaned.

“It conveyed exactly what it was meant to convey. I do not regret repeating what the readings showed,” Whitman said after watching one of the post-9/11 television interviews in which she stated that airborne toxins did not pose a significant health threat Downtown. Whitman called the E.P.A. workers heroes and said, “I believe that every level of government did their very best.”

Given that Whitman is named in a series of lawsuits against the E.P.A., local advocates said before the hearing that they were not expecting full candor from the former New Jersey governor. Still, several advocates said they were shocked that Whitman did not retract or second-guess a single statement, especially since there is mounting medical evidence that both rescue workers and residents have suffered illnesses — ranging from nagging indigestion to deadly lung scarring — following their exposure to W.T.C. dust and smoke.

“Whitman was absolutely unrepentant and that shocks my conscience,” said Kimberly Flynn, who organized the bus trip along with her advocacy group, 9/11 Environmental Action. Flynn said that despite Whitman’s repetition of “the big lie,” several new facts came to light during the hearing. Whitman, for instance, admitted that the federal government put pressure on the E.P.A. to reopen Wall St. as soon as possible. She also implied that the E.P.A. decided not to assert federal control over the cleanup operations for fear that usurping city powers would anger New Yorkers and therefore make the federal government look bad.

One of the most striking revelations was the confirmation by then-press coordinator for the White House’s Council for Environmental Quality, Samuel Thernstrom, that immediately following 9/11, the E.P.A. did not actually have enough data to tell the public whether or not the air was safe to breath. Thernstrom said that the government decided to reassure the public anyway, judging that it would be better to appear decisive in a time of crisis than to say, “I don’t know.” Later reassurances, he said, were fully supported by scientific data.

It was probably the first admission by a Bush loyalist that Whitman’s “safe to breathe” comment Sept. 18, 2001 was not based on conclusive science.

Former Sierra Club executive Suzanne Mattei rebuffed Thernstrom’s argument, saying that the reassuring statements early on put people’s health in danger.

“The air looked bad and it smelled bad,” Mattei said. “If the E.P.A. had said nothing at all we probably would have been better off because people would have relied on their own common sense.”

According to local resident and Community Board 1 member Catherine McVay Hughes, even residents who trusted their common sense were put in jeopardy by the E.P.A.’s public statements. By playing up the safety of the air in press releases and playing down or omitting mention of the toxins found in W.T.C. dust, Hughes said, the E.P.A. gave insurance companies license to send residents back to their homes before they had been properly or professionally cleaned.

“We understand why [the government] wanted to get the stock exchange up and running,” said Hughes, who watched the hearing on TV. “They needed the economy to get back on track. But they shouldn’t have made people who live in the area suffer health-wise to achieve that. They created additional victims.”

Whitman defended the accuracy of her post-9/11 “safe air” statements by clarifying repeatedly that she was only talking about the ambient air in Lower Manhattan, not the air over ground zero or the dust that blanketed the neighborhood. The advocates and several members of Congress called those distinctions erroneous, since residents and office workers had to walk through stirred-up dust and smoke on a daily basis.

Though she admitted that she was concerned about the health of first responders who didn’t wear respirators while working on “the pile,” Whitman testified that she is not a scientist and therefore could not say whether or not anyone had been made sick by W.T.C. exposure. Asked if she had read any of the scientific studies on the matter, Whitman said no. She did readily assert, however, that the initial dust cloud created by the W.T.C. collapse was likely “highly toxic.”

“There are people to blame — and they are the terrorists,” Whitman said.

Also urging Americans to blame the terrorists for 9/11-related illnesses, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Az) chastised Nadler for previous statements he has made about 9/11 health, in which he called government officials “villains.” Nadler backed off of his fiery rhetoric somewhat, saying that he would never equate U.S. officials with terrorists but that that sentiment “does not eliminate the possibility that other people exacerbated the harm” caused by the terrorists.

Nadler’s hearing came on heels of a Jun. 20 Senate hearing sponsored by Hillary Clinton. In the Senate hearing, the Government Accountability Office testified that the E.P.A.’s most recent plan to test and clean apartments for lingering Trade Center dust was under-funded, scientifically flawed and contained misleading statements about the unlikelihood of finding any more toxins Downtown (the test results that backed those claims came from measurements taken after apartments had already been professionally cleaned).

The G.A.O. report provided independent confirmation of what many advocates, scientists and politicians have been saying for years. Clinton’s comments on 9/11 health have typically been less provocative than Nadler’s, but the presidential candidate minced few words in her statements following the most recent hearings.

“Today we heard former administration officials try to defend their air quality statements, but the illnesses of first responders and residents speak for themselves,” Clinton said in a prepared statement following Nadler’s hearing.

Although disappointed that government officials did not admit to any mistakes during Monday’s hearing, Flynn said she believes that the hearing helped reveal some important truths to the public and the media. Therefore, attending the hearing was worth the long day of travel and testimony.

“Nobody is buying this story anymore,” Flynn said. “[Whitman] didn’t come clean, but this was still a day of reckoning and we were part of that reckoning.”

Closer to home

Nadler’s hearing came just two weeks after New York City made its own set of 9/11 health announcements, appointing a World Trade Center health coordinator and a panel of medical experts to review and synthesize information about 9/11-related illnesses and treatments, including mental health.

The panel and the coordinator position were created as a part of the city’s new plan to address 9/11 health concerns. The plan was officially adopted in February, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for the first time, stated unambiguously that first responders, cleanup workers and Downtown residents were all in need of federally funded, W.T.C.-specific health care.

The new coordinator, Jeffrey Hon, graduated from Columbia and has a background in public health, mental health and communications. Hon will be tasked with disseminating W.T.C. health data through a new, comprehensive Web site and meetings with responders and community members. Hon has remained largely mum since taking the new post and the Department of Health declined to grant the Downtown Express an interview with the new coordinator, citing the fact that he is “still settling in.”

Hughes, who chairs C.B. 1’s World Trade Center Committee, said she hoped that Hon would come before the board sometime soon to discuss his plans. She also hopes that the new expert panel, which includes Mt. Sinai pediatrician Phil Landrigan, will work to craft healthcare guidelines for treating children affected by 9/11’s environmental and emotional toxins.

“I’m looking forward to the children no longer being left behind; to them getting the best treatment they can get,” Hughes said.

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