(Editor's Note: Adds more reaction from former EPA head Christine Whitman)
(CNSNews.com) - A federal judge has lashed out at former Environmental Protection Agency leader Christine Todd Whitman for telling people the air was safe to breathe in lower Manhattan immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Judge Deborah Batts' comments came in a ruling allowing a class-action lawsuit filed by workers, residents and students to proceed.
The suit alleges that Whitman, the former two-term governor of New Jersey, and the EPA purposely misled people about the air quality in the days after the Twin Towers collapsed. Whitman left her gubernatorial post to join the Bush administration's EPA, which she led from 2001 to 2003.
In her 83-page decision, Batts also denied Whitman immunity against the class action lawsuit.
"No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," Batts wrote. "The allegations in this case of Whitman's reassuring and misleading statements of safety after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are without question conscience-shocking," she added.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2004, alleges that the EPA did not have sufficient information, including air monitoring data to make the statements reassuring residents about the safety of the air. After internal investigations, the EPA's office of the inspector general conceded that the agency lacked the data to make the assessments
This was followed by a report released by the EPA's internal watchdog, which stated that at the urging of White House officials, misleading assurances were made that there was no health risk from the dust created by the collapse of the towers.
It has been reported that nearly 2,000 tons of asbestos and more than 400,000 tons of concrete turned into dust when the towers fell.
In the aftermath of the Twin Towers destruction, rescue workers, local residents, and those who worked on the site to remove debris have complained of various respiratory illnesses, one of which has been dubbed the "World Trade Center Cough."
In January, 34 year-old New York City Police Detective James Zadroga died of lung disease and mercury poisoning. Zadroga was inside 7 World Trade Center before it collapsed, and spent more than 400 hours at Ground Zero working on the recovery and cleanup of the site. He became sick soon after he stopped working at Ground Zero.
Other rescue workers have gone public, telling stories of breathing problems. Some say they have coughed up solid bits of debris and experienced severe fatigue. As a result, numerous police, fire, and emergency personnel have been forced to file for disability instead of continuing in their jobs.
The New York City Department of Health, responding to hundreds of breathing and lung problems, created a database to document the health of people exposed to 9/11 dust and debris. That list has now grown to more than 71,000 people.
According to official EPA press releases immediately after the 9/11 attacks, which Cybercast News Service obtained, Whitman and the EPA almost immediately assured area residents and rescue workers that the air was not a concern.
The first press statement from the EPA dated Sept. 13, 2001, focused on the quality of the air.
"Sampling of bulk materials and dust found generally low levels of asbestos. The levels of lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds in air samples taken on Tuesday in Brooklyn, downwind from the World Trade Center site, were not detectable or not of concern," the EPA statement read.
"Additional sampling of both ambient air quality and dust particles was conducted Wednesday night in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and results were uniformly acceptable."
Seventy-two hours after the Twin Towers collapsed, a Sept. 14, 2001, statement indicated that protective measures were also being taken to minimize any danger that might be posed to workers at the site.
"More than 3,000 respirators, 60 self-contained breathing apparatus machines, and 10,000 specially-equipped protective suits are on the way to these disaster sites. EPA is working closely with federal, state, and local partners to ensure that all workers and volunteers involved in the rescue and cleanup efforts are properly protected," the EPA stated.
On Sept. 16, 2001, a follow-up statement attempted to reassure New Yorkers that the air was safe and people could return to work in lower Manhattan.
"The new samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern. New OSHA data also indicates that indoor air quality in downtown buildings will meet standards. EPA has found variable asbestos levels in bulk debris and dust on the ground, but EPA continues to believe that there is no significant health risk to the general public in the coming days," the EPA declared on Sept. 16, 2001.
Then, on Sept. 21, 2001, Whitman announced what she called "the most detailed results to date."
"As we continue to monitor air and drinking water in and around New York City, and as EPA gets more comprehensive analysis of this monitoring data, I am relieved to be able to reassure New York and New Jersey residents that a host of potential contaminants are either not detectable or are below the Agency's concern levels," Whitman said. "Results we have just received on drinking water quality show that not only is asbestos not detectable, but also we cannot detect any bacterial contamination, PCBs or pesticides," she continued.
In her ruling, Batts stated that Whitman knew that the collapse of the buildings released tons of hazardous materials into the air that would have endangered the public and yet she encouraged residents, workers and students to return to the area.
"By these actions she (Whitman) increased and may have in fact created the danger to plaintiffs," Batts stated. "Without doubt, if plaintiffs had not been told by the head of a federal agency entrusted with monitoring the environment that it was safe, plaintiffs would not have so readily returned to the area so soon after the attacks."
New York's congressional delegation was quick to respond, slamming both Whitman and the Bush administration.
"Today's decision reinforces what I have said all along: That EPA failed in its duty to protect New Yorkers from the dangerous cloud of toxic materials that was released on September 11, that the White House edited EPA's statements to downplay the risks posed by the contaminants in that cloud, and that EPA has failed to implement an adequate testing program to assess whether there are ongoing risks posed by indoor contamination in New York. This is outrageous," stated U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.
"Finally, a court of law has recognized the tremendous injustice carried out by our government in dealing with post-9/11 New York," said U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose congressional district includes the World Trade Center site. "From day one, it was obvious that Christie Todd Whitman and the EPA were lying to the people of New York when they started saying within two days after the disaster that the air was safe to breathe and the water was safe to drink.
"Judge Batts' decision proves that the people exposed to World Trade Center contamination do, in fact, have a legal case to make against EPA, and against Whitman. I hope that EPA's lies and wrongdoing will finally be laid bare for all to see," Nadler added.
Whitman released a statement late Friday, stating that she stands by her actions and those of the EPA.
"From the moment the planes hit the World Trade Center, the men and women of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, relying on decades of experience in responding to natural and manmade disasters around the world, began to do everything in their power to protect the people of New York," Whitman stated.
"Every action taken by the EPA during the response to this horrific event was designed to provide the most comprehensive protection and the most accurate information to the residents of Manhattan. To imply otherwise is completely inaccurate," the former governor added.
The spokesperson for EPA declined to comment on Batts' ruling.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.