The Return of the Red Queen

06/27/2007 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York, NY -- Former EPA Administrator Christy Todd Whitman returned to the crime scene of 9-11 at a Congressional hearing Monday. Once again, Whitman insisted that EPA had done the right thing by telling the public that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe even when the agency's own scientists believed that it was not. Congressman Jerry Nadler showed clips of Whitman saying, "Well, if there's any good news out of all this, it's that everything we've tested for, which includes asbestos, lead and VOCs [volatile organic chemicals], have been below any level of concern for the general public health." To boos and hisses, Whitman responded: "I am disappointed by the misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods that have characterized the public discussion about EPA in the aftermath of the terrorists' attacks." Whitman argued that the agency's statements were accurate because it was only referring to air samples it had taken outside the area where it was dangerous. "Dust and air are two different things," Whitman said. "On the pile [of debris], it is different." So the air was safe to breathe -- but the dust in the air was not? Alice's Red Queen would have been proud. Think of the Bush Administration as Matrix III, screenplay by Lewis Carroll.

Judging from her performance, Whitman was unfazed by a recent federal court ruling in which Judge Deborah Batts of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York called her assurances of safety "conscience shocking," given that an estimated one million tons of asbestos, lead, concrete and dust were released into lower Manhattan. Nor did she seem concerned that her own agency's inspector general had ruled that the agency issued misleading press releases about the risks, and subsequently failed to properly test and clean indoor areas contaminated by World Trade Center toxins.

Also at Congressman Nadler's hearing, Occupational Health and Safety Administrator John Henshaw hid behind technicalities. He pointed out that the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 does not cover public employees, so he was not responsible for the safety of firefighters and other first responders on Sept. 11. Shockingly, he admitted that cleanup standards at the Pentagon were more stringently enforced than at Ground Zero, but stubbornly insisted that, "I am not aware of any [people not wearing respirators] that we did not take immediate action to correct," a statement stunningly at odds with the record. In fact, Whitman earlier blamed the workers for refusing to wear the respirators that Henshaw insisted he made sure they wore!

Suzanne Mattei, the former Sierra Club New York Executive who researched 9-11 for the Club, testified that "the concern is not just that EPA lacked the test results to justify its early assurances of safety. ... It is worse than that. Our government issued those safety assurances even though EPA's own vast body of knowledge, built up over three decades of research, indicated that the pollution would be harmful. ... Our federal government's stonewalling continued as study after study documented health impacts not only among workers from the pile but also area clean-up workers and residents. Today, almost six years later, denial is still the order of the day."

Mattei also pointed out that the mishandling of 9-11, far from being a one-time lapse, however unforgivable, has now been elevated to national policy (pdf). The sloppiness that characterized the handling of Ground Zero, as opposed to the more cautious approach taken at the Pentagon, is now government doctrine. "Unfortunately, our federal government has not learned from its Ground Zero debacle. Under its National Response Plan, OSHA will not enforce worker health and safety standards in national disasters. Also, the Plan centralizes press statements, which makes it easier to politicize health warnings, as occurred after 9/11, without a strong precautionary policy to err on the side of protecting human health when full information is missing. Finally, the Department of Homeland Security's new guidance document on cleanup after a dirty bomb or other terrorist nuclear attack encourages consideration of economic factors, even impacts on tourism, in managing the public health risks."