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2007-06-26

Ex-EPA Head Christine Todd Whitman Denies Misleading Public Over Environmental Dangers After 9/11; Admits White House Removed EPA Call for NYC Apartments to be Professionally Cleaned of Dust

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Nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Whitman appeared on Capitol Hill Monday for the first time to answer questions about the EPA’s statements after the collapse of the World Trade Center. Since Whitman assured New Yorkers that the air was "safe to breathe," thousands of downtown residents and workers have become sick. [includes rush transcript]

Nearly six years after the 9/11 attacks, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, appeared on Capitol Hill Monday to answer questions on whether the government misled residents and workers on the safety of the air quality around Ground Zero. In the days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Whitman assured New York City residents the air was safe to breathe. Thousands of workers and residents have suffered respiratory problems and other illnesses. At least two deaths have been directly linked the toxic Ground Zero dust.

Whitman’s appearance marked the first time a top federal official has publicly responded to questions on the government’s handling of environmental health impact of 9/11. In a heated session, Whitman defended her record and refused to express regret for assuring residents and workers the air around Lower Manhattan was safe. She also denied what many believe drove her misleading statements — political pressure from the White House.

Whitman also admitted she had not read the clinical reports from the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. A Mount Sinai study last year found seventy percent of around ten thousand Ground Zero workers developed new or worsened respiratory problems.

Dozens of Ground Zero workers and residents were on hand for the hearing. We’ll get reaction later in the broadcast, but first we turn to Whitman’s testimony.

  • Christine Todd Whitman’s opening remarks.

That was former EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, testifying Monday before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Whitman was met with criticism from Congressmembers who insisted the public was misled on the toxic dangers of Ground Zero. The hearing was called by New York Democratic Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, whose district included the World Trade Center. In his opening remarks, Nadler had harsh words for the Bush administration’s assurances to Lower Manhattan residents.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

Nadler went on to question Whitman and former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head John Henshaw. Both refused to repudiate their statement the air around Ground Zero was safe.

  • Rep. Nadler questioning Christine Todd Whitman and John Henshaw, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Some Republicans defended the Bush administration’s handling of the Ground Zero cleanup. Arizona Congressmember Trent Franks and Democratic Congressmember John Conyers exchanged words over whether Democrats have taken their criticism too far.

  • Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)

That was Republican Congressmember Trent Franks, responding to Democratic Congressmember John Conyers. Other speakers continued to press Whitman on the government’s repeated assurances on the Ground Zero air. Whitman defended her remarks under questioning from Democratic Congressmember Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

  • Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) questioning Christine Todd Whitman

That was former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, questioned by Congressmember Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Whitman later got into another exchange with Democratic Congressmember William Pascrell of New Jersey.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Nearly six years after the 9/11 attacks, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, appeared on Capitol Hill Monday to answer questions on whether the government misled residents and workers in the safety of the air quality around Ground Zero.

In the days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Whitman assured New York City residents the air was safe to breathe. Thousands of workers and residents have suffered respiratory problems and other illnesses. At least two deaths have been directly linked to the toxic Ground Zero dust.

Whitman’s appearance marked the first time a top federal official has publicly responded to questions on the government’s handling of environmental health impact of 9/11. In a heated session, Whitman defended her record and refused to express regret for assuring residents and workers the air around Lower Manhattan was safe. She also denied what many believe drove her misleading statements: political pressure from the White House.

Whitman also admitted she had not read the clinical reports from the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. A Mount Sinai study last year found 70% of around 10,000 Ground Zero workers developed new or worsened respiratory problems.

Dozens of Ground Zero workers and residents were on hand for the hearing. We’ll get reaction later in the broadcast, but first we turn to Christine Todd Whitman’s testimony.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Mr. Chairman, I fully appreciate that the events of 9/11 touch raw emotions, but I am disappointed at the misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods that have characterized the public discussion about EPA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. EPA’s most extreme critics have alleged that I knowingly misled New Yorkers and the workers of Ground Zero about the safety risks associated with environmental contamination.

The destructive and incendiary charge was investigated by EPA’s inspector general, who confirmed in her 2003 report that we did not conceal any of our test data from the public. In fact, within days of the 9/11 report, I authorized EPA to post all the test data, all of it, on a public website. I did so, precisely because I wanted to be as transparent to the public as possible.

Statements that EPA officials made after 9/11 were based on the judgment of experienced environmental and health professionals at EPA, OSHA and the CDC, who had analyzed the test data that thirteen different organizations and agencies were collecting in Lower Manhattan. I do not recall any EPA scientist or experts responsible for reviewing this data ever advising me that the test data from Lower Manhattan showed that the air or water proposed long-term health risks for the general public.

With respect to the immediate area where the towers fell, however, the data revealed, and we publicly reported, that the air was different than in the rest of Manhattan. As these charts over here show, in the weeks following the attacks EPA officials repeatedly warned of the risk to workers at Ground Zero and noticed the difference between air quality at the site and the air in the rest of New York. I and other EPA officials publicly urged rescue and recovery workers to wear protective gear that EPA had secured for their use at Ground Zero. The EPA also advised workers at Ground Zero of the proper washing procedures for their clothes and equipment. In fact, on September 11, only hours after the attack, EPA officials prepared this flyer, that I would direct your attention to, for distribution by FEMA to rescue and recovery workers at the site. As you can see, Mr. Chairman, the flyer informed workers of the risks of asbestos exposure caused by the collapse and cautioned workers to use protective equipment, including appropriate eyeglasses, respirators and protective clothing. It also urged proper cleaning procedures for clothing and equipment. It is utterly false, then, for EPA critics to assert that I or others in the agency set about to mislead New Yorkers or the rescue workers.

Mr. Chairman, the grief of 9/11 remains with us. Like many others, I lost personal friends that day. I suspect there will be a lot of talk in this hearing about blame and responsibility for what happened on September 11 and in its aftermath. Let’s be clear: there are 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 this country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, testifying Monday before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Whitman was met with criticism from Congress members who insisted the public was misled on the toxic dangers of Ground Zero.

The hearing was called by New York Democratic Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes the World Trade Center. In his opening remarks Nadler had harsh words for the Bush administration’s assurances to Lower Manhattan residents.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Our government knowingly exposed thousands of American citizens unnecessarily to deadly hazardous materials. And because it has never admitted the truth, Americans remain at grave risk to this day. Thousands of first responders, residents, area workers and students are sick, and some are dead, and that toll will continue to grow until we get the truth and take appropriate action.

Those false statements continue to the present. Administrator Whitman has said there has never been a subsequent study that disproved what agency scientists told us all along. She omits to note that what agency scientists and others told her was very, very different from what the EPA communicated to the public. A September 2003 statement of nineteen EPA union local heads reads, "Little did the Civil Service expect that their professional work would be subverted by political pressure applied by the White House. […] These workers reported to senior EPA officials their best estimate of the risks, and they expected those estimates and the accompanying recommendations for protective measures to be released in a timely manner to those who needed the information. The public was not informed of all [of these] health risks. This information was withheld [from the public] under orders of the White House. [Instead], the Bush White House had information released, drafted by political appointees, that it knew to contradict the scientific facts. It misinformed. And many rescue workers and citizens suffered. Some citizens now face the long-term risk of asbestos-related lung cancer as well as other debilitating respiratory ailments as a result," close quote.

I want to conclude with a pronouncement made by then-administrator Whitman in September 2001. She declared then, quote, "The President has said, 'Spare no expense. Do everything you need to do to make sure the people of this city are safe as far as the environment is concerned,'" close quote. It is my fervent hope that after some of the truth begins to come to light through these hearings, we will see that this promise made to the victims and heroes of 9/11 is finally kept.

AMY GOODMAN: House subcommittee chair, New York Democratic Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. He went on to question Whitman and former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head, John Henshaw. Both refused to repudiate their statement that the air around Ground Zero was safe.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: In a series of EPA press releases beginning on September 13, the following words were used to describe the air conditions: "good news," "causes no concern," "not detectable," "no significant health risk" and "safe to breathe." Ms. Whitman, do these words and phrases convey a sense of danger or even of caution? Or do they, in fact, convey a sense of safety and security?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Mr. Chairman, those words, to the best of my recollection, in every effort that I made at the time, were also added with the phrase, "however, on the pile it is different."

REP. JERROLD NADLER: We’ll get to that.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: And that’s —- but there’s a significant difference. The readings we were getting of air quality at the time -—

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Excuse me. We will get to that. Please. We only have a few minutes. Answer my questions. Do they convey a sense of safety and security or a sense of caution?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: They should — they convey exactly what they were meant to convey.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: OK.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Those were the reading from the scientists.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Do you regret your repeated assurances the air was safe to breathe?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I do not regret repeating what the scientists said was appropriate.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: OK. Mr. Henshaw, do these words and phrases convey a sense of danger or even of caution, or do they convey a sense of safety and security, in your opinion?

JOHN HENSHAW: Again, not counting the pile. The pile was as a separate circumstance.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: We’ll get to the pile.

JOHN HENSHAW: Alright. We sampled — we took 240 samples.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: I just asked — please, answer the question. We’ll get to all that.

JOHN HENSHAW: All of our samples were below or significantly below our permissible exposure limits.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Excuse me. You said that already. It’s on the record. I just asked you if this conveyed a sense of safety.

JOHN HENSHAW: That conveys that the environment is safe.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: OK, thank you. Do you now regret saying it was safe for New Yorkers to go back to work six days after the terrorist attack? Was that a mistake?

JOHN HENSHAW: Not within the financial district. On the pile was a different circumstance. Sir, I do not regret it.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: But in the area around it, it was OK?

JOHN HENSHAW: All of our data indicated that it was OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Former OSHA head, John Henshaw, questioned by New York Democratic Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. Some Republicans defended the Bush administration’s handling of the Ground Zero cleanup. Arizona Congressmember Trent Franks and Democratic Congressman John Conyers exchanged words over whether Democrats have taken their criticism too far.

REP. TRENT FRANKS: I understand that Chairman Nadler held a press conference to criticize state and local official efforts to provide for injured 9/11 rescue workers, in which he said, quote, "The villains are no longer the terrorists. The villains live in the White House and in Gracie Mansion and in the governor’s office," close quote.

Let us be clear, Mr. Chairman, the villains are the terrorists. The villains remain the terrorists. The terrorists caused the harm on 9/11. We must be very careful not to equate, even unintentionally, the good faith efforts of government officials to dutifully respond to an emergency in strained circumstances with the vicious, premeditated violence perpetrated by blood-thirsty murderers who express desire to kill as many innocent people as possible. With that, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to the witness.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Would the distinguished gentleman yield to me?

REP. TRENT FRANKS: Certainly. Certainly.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: And I thank you, Mr. Franks. As the ranking member, we appreciate your presence very much. What I wanted to just make sure that we all agree on, that we’re in no way attempting to intervene with the court procedures or what’s going on in the court and that we’re not trying to obfuscate or in any way discredit anything that is going on at this present time in the federal courts under the legal procedure. I think we’re all in agreement that that is not our goal here, to interfere or even to instruct the courts. We’re holding the hearing pursuant to our responsibilities as members of the one committee in the Congress that can inquire into these matters. And I just wanted to seek your assurance that that’s why we’re all here.

REP. TRENT FRANKS: Well, I understand, Mr. Chairman. And I accept that at face value. I guess I would just suggest that, given the sensibilities of the issue here, that it might be better for the courts to come to their conclusion before we begin to second-guess them.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Trent Franks responding to Democratic Congressmember John Conyers. When we come back from break, we’ll hear others, like Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, grilling Christine Todd Whitman. We’ll also speak with people who went to the hearings from New York, from Ground Zero, who are sick today. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with other people at the House subcommittee hearing yesterday who continued to press the former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman on the government’s repeated assurances on the Ground Zero air. Whitman defended her remarks under questioning from Democratic Congressmember Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Let me ask you this: do I agree that after those planes collided with those — with the towers, that it caused an immediately dangerous toxic levels for people of air quality, dust, and water?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, we were enormously concerned when those towers came down.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Right. And do you also agree today, even looking back in hindsight, that the language that you used gave people a false sense of safety?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: No, I do not agree that it gave them a false sense of safety. We were talking about air quality, the general ambient air quality in Lower Manhattan, and the impact on long-term health. And I’m sorry if that was not what people —

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, wait a minute. Now, Governor —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: — now looking back want to see, but that was what the scientists were telling us.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor. I’m sorry, Governor. I only got five minutes. I would never interrupt you under normal circumstances, but I only got five minutes. Given the scope — this is a quote from the September 18th EPA response: "Given the scope of tragedy from last week I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink." Now, that is a fairly sweeping statement about reassurance. Do you now feel that you spoke a little bit too broadly and a little bit too soon about the actual quality of the air and the water?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Every test that we have gotten back —

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Excuse me, Governor —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: —- all the data, whether it indicated -—

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, I just —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, Congressman, you know, it’s fine to go through the yes-and-nos, but I think it’s important for people to understand that these were not whims. These were not decisions by a politician. Everything I said was based on what I was hearing from professionals. My son was in building seven on that day, Congressman.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: And, Governor, what —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: And I almost lost him.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, no one —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: This is as personal to me as it is to anyone.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor. Governor.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: And I would never —

REP. KEITH ELLISON: No, no.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: — lie to the public ever.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, excuse me. I’m not going to allow you to turn this into a personal thing. It’s personal for the people out here.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: It’s personal with everybody, and I was professional.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: It’s personal to the people out here, too, Governor.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Yes, I understand that.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: And I’m not going to stand here and allow you to try to obfuscate the questions that I’m asking —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I’m not obfuscating, Congressman. I’m answering.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: — by doing what you’re doing.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I have been called a liar.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: No, I’m not calling —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I’ve been called a liar even in this room today —

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, I’m not calling you —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: — and my actions might have been criminal.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, I’m not calling you that.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: With all due respect, you’re sitting on a panel with people who are calling me those things.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Governor, I’m not calling you that. I’m trying to get answers.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Ladies and gentlemen, it has expired.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, questioned by Congressmember Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Whitman later got into another exchange with Democratic Congressmember William Pascrell of New Jersey.

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: The people are not making these stories up. The people are not claiming that their illnesses or sicknesses are coming from something other than, they felt, their work in the area. That’s very dangerous and — I think you would agree with that — very serious. And we have a responsibility in the government to protect and to prevent things from happening. If these people are correct that they suffered these things, then I don’t care what reports you tell us about. I don’t care what evidence you present. The evidence is that people, I’m convinced, are not lying, that they are sick, that they have had very difficult situations in breathing, pulmonary problems. I’ve talked to these people myself, governor. They’re not making this stuff up.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Congressman, I would never say they were making it up, and I have talked to them, as well. That’s one of the reasons —

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: Well, good. Now that we believe that they’re not —

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: That’s one of the reasons why we continued to say that those working on the pile should wear respirators. That’s why —

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: But they didn’t.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: — we repeated over and over again.

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: They all didn’t.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: No, they did not.

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: And the judge who handled the case — and in conclusion, I want to make this point very clear — the judge who handled the case that was brought against you and against the EPA was very clear. He said this: "Whitman’s deliberate and misleading statements made to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to those areas, shock the conscience." That’s what he said. I didn’t say that. Nadler didn’t say that. King didn’t say that. That’s what he said. He also said, "No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to Lower Manhattan, while knowing such return could pose long-term risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws."

And let me tell you something, Governor, very clearly. There is a reason. There is a reason for this happening. And there’s a reason for why this judge said what he did. And let me tell you also, you know that this administration that you worked for has very little credibility and accountability. So you wonder — you don’t wonder why we ask questions about what was coming out. 'We wanted one voice.' Give me a break.

We’re talking about people’s health here. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about human faces. And you know that, just as well as I do. I ask you, come clear. Clear the air, so that we could all go forward.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: The gentleman’s time has expired.

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: Thank you.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: The witness may answer the question.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Thank you. First of all, I’d just like to [inaudible] particular judge, and there was another judge in the Southern District Court on the same day looking at the same — Congressman, there was a judge in the Southern District Court on the same day, looking at the basic same fact pattern, came to a very different conclusion. She did not look at fact — that is, as you — I think you are a lawyer, Congressman?

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: No, I’m not.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: OK, well, then, I’m not either. That’s one of the few things we share, Congressman. We’re — neither one of us are.

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: I have two sons that are lawyers. I don’t hold it against them.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: One of the things that a judge must take as fact in that kind of a proceeding are the allegations by the plaintiffs. They don’t look at fact. They don’t hear testimony on it. They have to take that as fact. And she was adjudicating whether or not —

REP. WILLIAM PASCRELL: Well, I’m glad someone from the administration, past and present, believes that we should rely on science. That’s what we will do.

AMY GOODMAN: New Jersey Congressmember Bill Pascrell questioning the former head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman. She’s also former governor of New Jersey.

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