EPA, NYC Blamed for 9/11 Health Problems
Friday, September 8, 2006; 7:35 PM
NEW YORK -- City and federal officials came under withering criticism Friday from lawmakers who charged that ground zero workers were not protected as they clambered over a smoking pile of toxic debris _ and have not been properly cared for since.
Former Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Todd Whitman was the most frequent target during a day-long House hearing about the health woes afflicting thousands of ground zero workers.
Whitman stressed in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the air in lower Manhattan was safe, although she also said workers at the World Trade Center site needed to use protective breathing gear. In a "60 Minutes" segment to be aired Sunday, she said the responsibility for offering such gear to workers lay with the city.
Whitman is being sued over her public assurances, and she was accused Friday of doing too little to protect workers.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who chaired the hearing, said Whitman's September 2001 statements "defied logic and everybody knows that."
Whitman defended herself Friday, insisting that it was up to local authorities to make sure rescue workers wore protective breathing gear.
"We agreed then, and I reiterate now, that the air on the site was not clean ... We were emphatic that workers needed to wear respirators, a message I repeated frequently. But I did not have the jurisdiction to force workers to wear them _ that was up to their superiors," Whitman said in a statement.
City officials already under fire for their own role in the ongoing health problems disputed Whitman's claims.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said the federal government was responsible for work safety at the site, and added that he did not think Whitman's post-Sept. 11 assurances were "an appropriate way to word the message."
In a Sept. 13, 2001, press release, the EPA said the air around the disaster site was relatively safe. On Sept. 16, 2001, Whitman said that tests showed air pollution levels "that cause us no concern." Two days later, she said she was glad to reassure New York and Washington residents that their air and water were safe.
Others appearing at the hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., accused the EPA of lying to New Yorkers and endangering public health.
At a separate event Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city's handling of the disaster, saying it distributed masks.
"Nobody knew whether there would be health issues down the road, and they made the decisions that they thought were right at the time," said Bloomberg, who succeeded Rudolph Giuliani as mayor months after the attacks.
Joe Lhota, Giuliani's former deputy mayor for operations, said in a statement Thursday, "The EPA publicly reported that the general air quality was safe, and the city repeatedly instructed workers on the pile to use their respirators."
The hearing began with testimony from Joseph Zadroga, whose NYPD officer son died in January of respiratory disease attributed to ground zero exposure.
Joseph Zadroga briefly lost his composure as he described the day he found James Zadroga dead on his bedroom floor. The father blasted the city for doing nothing while his son was sick, saying, "He was treated like a dog."
Public pressure has been growing for the government to deal with health problems blamed on toxic dust at the site. This week Mount Sinai Medical Center released a study showing that nearly seven out of every 10 ground zero responders suffered lung problems.
Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the New York hospital's program monitoring afflicted workers, told lawmakers that new patients are still arriving at Mount Sinai to be treated for 9/11-related illnesses _ and thousands probably will need lifelong care.
The Bush administration said it will continue to help sick Sept. 11 workers but would not say what their long-term health needs might cost.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told New York lawmakers Thursday that $75 million would be delivered in the next two months to pay for treatment programs.
Associated Press Writer Sara Kugler contributed to this report.