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Accounts of 9/11 air defended

The ex-EPA chief tells a panel her statements on ground zero safety were based on reports from professionals.

June 26, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, appearing Monday before a House subcommittee, denounced as "downright falsehoods" criticism of her statements following the Sept. 11 attacks that the air quality in areas around the World Trade Center site was safe for workers and residents.

"I am disappointed in the misinformation, innuendo and downright falsehoods" from critics, she told members of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties. Her statements about the air quality near ground zero, she said, were "based on the judgment of experienced scientists."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district included the World Trade Center, called the hearing to determine whether EPA and other federal officials had violated the rights of citizens by what he contended were false assurances of air quality.

In his opening remarks, Nadler said he thought that the Bush administration had "continued to make false, misleading and inaccurate statements" regarding the environmental contamination of the area.

Whitman defended her statements about the air quality by emphasizing the difference between piles of dust and debris containing asbestos and lead at ground zero and the air that workers and residents were breathing in nearby areas. She said the EPA repeatedly urged workers at ground zero to wear respirators and masks, but was told by New York City officials that they could not be required to do so.

Nadler cited studies of the long-term health effects of the air quality, saying nearly 20,000 people -- including 70% of the first responders being monitored -- had experienced respiratory and digestive problems since the attacks. However, Whitman said the long-term studies she had seen did not come to that conclusion.

She also said the Bush administration had not pressured her to present a more favorable view of the air quality than was actually the case, adding that the White House had reviewed her statements only to ensure that the information from more than a dozen different agencies monitoring the area was up to date.

"It was entirely appropriate for the White House to look at those statements before they went out," said Whitman, who resigned from the EPA post in 2003.

Her statements were based on "what I was hearing from professionals," she said. "These were not decisions made by politicians."

Whitman's testimony was interrupted by boos from activists representing the Beyond Ground Zero Coalition, a group of organizations seeking long-term healthcare benefits for affected individuals and demanding that Whitman apologize and go to jail.

Before the hearing, the group, whose members came by bus from Manhattan for the day, held signs in several languages as they chanted, "Whitman lies, people die" on the steps of the Rayburn House Office Building.

Some raised posters portraying Whitman as the Grim Reaper.

Michelle Giraldo, 14, and her mother, Vaycer Giraldo, 40, were among those demanding "healthcare, not toxic air."

"My mom had to go down there without a mask and she had to clean," Michelle said. "Now she has asthma and lung disease, scarring in her lungs, and she's in the beginning stages of having cancer."

Other protesters who had volunteered to help clean up ground zero talked about such ongoing health issues as lung disease, pneumonia, asthma and digestive problems.

"People are outraged that they are continuing to stick to their story and continuing to lie," said activist Kimberly Flynn. "These lies have hurt our lives and the lives of our families."

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