The former head of the Environmental Protection Agency apologized for the first time for her declaration a week after 9/11 that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.
Christine Todd Whitman conceded Friday that it was a mistake to give the all-clear at Ground Zero and said she was sorry for the ongoing health crisis that still grips first responders.
Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, quickly added that she never lied about the air quality and repeated that she was simply passing on information given to her by government scientists.
“Whatever we got wrong, we should acknowledge, and people should be helped,” Whitman told the Guardian. “I’m very sorry that people are sick.”
The mea culpa comes as several reports leading up to the 15th anniversary have underscored the consequences of letting people stay at Ground Zero. The reports reveal the fallout of inhaling toxic dust was worse than predicted. “I’m very sorry that people are dying, and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry,” Whitman said. “We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”
Her apology rang hallow with first responders and the advocates who have stood by their sides. “I don’t believe her for one second,” said John Feal, executive director of the FealGood Foundation, a first responders advocate group that fought for the passage of the Zadroga Bill. The bill ensures health coverage for those affected by Ground Zero-related health woes.
“If she was sincere she would have walked the halls of Congress with me. If she was sincere, she could have gone to one of the 154 funerals with me. She was reckless and careless because of her words, and believe it or not, words have consequences. God’s going to be her judge.” Steve Cassidy from Uniformed Firefighters’ Association slammed her apology.
“Her admission doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Cassidy said. “We knew it was toxic at the time and we did the work anyway. Her apology now doesn’t change the fact that firefighters didn’t think it was safe even at the time, but we had a job to do so we did it.”
That included former FDNY chief Rich Alles. “I knew the air was no good but as a first responder that’s what I signed up for,” Alles said. “But what she did jeopardized the health of every school child who returned to school in Lower Manahttan, every educator who went back to school to teach them and every person who lived in that area who returned home to breathe in toxic dust.”
Just seven days after the attack, while dust and debris laced with lead, asbestos and a host of other contaminants, coated the buildings and streets surrounding the World Trade Center site, Whitman released a statement declaring the air “safe to breathe.”
A 2003 report by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General charged that the agency lacked the information needed to make such a determination.
More than 1,000 people who registered with the World Trade Center Health Program, set up to oversee those affected by the aftermath of the attacks, have died during the past 15 years. According to a summary of five research articles on the health impacts on rescuers and others who worked the site, both the number of people sickened and the type of illnesses present were greater than anticipated.
The results echoed findings released Friday by the Uniformed Fire Officers’ Association, the union that represents the FDNY’s higher-ranks. Through July 2016, 10,233 firefighters had at least one 9/11-linked illness — and many had more than one, said union head Jake Lemonda.
There are currently 1,396 afflicted with cancer; 5,723 battling a gastroesophageal problem; 5,557 diagnosed with upper respiratory illness and 5,456 with a lower respiratory illness, he said. “There are many firefighters who responded on 9/11 and the days and weeks after who are very very sick,” Lemonda said. “Yet, not one member has ever said they regretted responding.”
Whitman said she is troubled by the finger-pointing. “Every time it comes around to the anniversary I cringe, because I know people will bring up my name, they blame me, they say that I lied and that people died because I lied, people have died because I made a mistake,” she said.
The EPA encouraged first responders to wear masks and respirators while conducting searches of the site, but declared the surrounding areas safe. In 2008, federal judges determined Whitman was not personally responsible for the inaccurate reassurances she gave the public.