Yesterday I watched the testimony of Christie Whitman, former EPA head when somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 workers on the “pile” — former World Trade Center site — were destroying their health with asbestos and many other dangerous chemicals which they were by necessity forced to inhale during the course of doing their jobs.

Whitman, Giuliani, and the Bush administration look to be the villains in this piece. They were more concerned to get our economy up and running at minimal financial cost than with the health of those working on the pile, passing by, living near. Sparing full details which are emerging, Whitman’s and the Bush administration’s edited public announcements distorted the facts that the area was extremely dangerous to health.

The teams brought in — many as volunteers from far states — were told to wear respirators to protect their lungs. But this stuff was unworkable. It quickly clogged with moisture and the guys were faced with the alternative of quitting work or breathing in the junk — much of it such as freon from the many tanks of poisons burning in the basements of the buildings which was mixed with the debris and even spreading through the area subways and neighborhoods. I was commuting to Brooklyn then and for several months at each trip cringed at the stench as we passed through the nearby stations — of burning bodies and other airborne debris.

I became particularly aware of this nightmare — only now getting sufficient attention with a Democratic Congress — through the reports of one of our Brooklyn students to a class last spring (2006) who had been a heavy vehicle operator, himself, now lung damaged. Kojo Davis was well informed about the hazards, the fact that many of the workers were not even paid their full wages when sub contractors stiffed them despite the fact that the four major contractors working for the city on the project were fully compensated. Kojo detailed for us the additional poisons, the 12 hour shifts men were obliged to undertake, the deprivation even of Workmen’s Compensation until a Deputy Mayor, Rudy Washington, himself sickened complained and persuaded the state legislature to extend its filing deadlines beyond a one year cutoff.

A big question now is where the blame primarily belongs. Whitman and her crew are dodging — “We posted the hazards on a website.” — presumably to be read by the workers nightly? However, it was the takeover Mayor Giuliani who ran the show to get it done fast and at minimum expense. Kojo showed us an ugly letter he sent out to the workers with a first sentence thanking them for their help and the rest of a two page letter threatening legal retaliation should any try to profit from their experiences. Word of their ill health was presumably suppressed until the Mount Sinai study (privately funded) established that about 80% of those doing the work had lost lung functions and were showing symptoms of further and possible deadly harm.

One of the good things about my post WW2 generation of college students was that we took pride in doing blue collar jobs during our summers and school breaks. We knew that such work was dangerous and prematurely damaged bodies. We did not feel the social class distances that a Whitman manifests with her snide attack — dumping responsibility on guys who did not wear the NONFUNCTIONAL equipment provided to them!

This situation is a national disgrace. If we cannot punish those responsible for it, at least we can give proper support to those so horrendously injured. Many are reported to be suffering PTSD as they learn that they may no longer go on working with damaged bodies and foreshortened lives. We spent billions to support the families of those who died 9/11. At least we can do the same for the responders destined go on suffering the consequences of greedy indifference by those in charge of the clean up.


Christie Whitman faced tough questioning Monday by a Congressional panel.

Published: June 26, 2007

WASHINGTON, June 25 — Testifying at a Congressional hearing on Monday about the government’s environmental response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Christie Whitman staunchly defended her statements assuring the public that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe in the days immediately after the attack.

“Our government has knowingly exposed thousands of American citizens unnecessarily to deadly hazardous materials,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler.

Facing some of her toughest Congressional critics, Mrs. Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, repeatedly denied the critics’ assertions that there had been a deliberate attempt to play down health risks or that the White House had improperly influenced statements she made in the weeks after 9/11.

She said that she was addressing residents of Lower Manhattan — not workers at ground zero — when she said a week after the attack that the air was safe to breathe. She said that the agency issued strong and repeated warnings to workers on the debris pile to wear protective equipment, but that her agency had no ability or authority to enforce that requirement.

“It’s utterly false then for E.P.A. critics to assert that I or others at the agency set about to mislead New Yorkers and rescue workers,” Mrs. Whitman said during her opening statement before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The hearing room was packed with recovery workers and Manhattan residents who said they had waited years for Mrs. Whitman to answer questions about the environmental and health issues related to the disaster.

“Every statement I made was based on what experts, who had a great deal of experience in these things, conveyed to me,” she said.

But her assertions did not deflect harsh questions or criticisms about the federal response from the Democrats in the room.

“Our government has knowingly exposed thousands of American citizens unnecessarily to deadly hazardous materials,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the subcommittee and a Manhattan Democrat whose district includes ground zero. “And because it has never admitted the truth, Americans remain at grave risk to this day.”

Mrs. Whitman initially refused to testify before the subcommittee because she said she was not qualified to discuss legal issues. After checking with her lawyers, she agreed to appear. She also is named in at least three pending lawsuits brought against the agency by city residents and workers.

The hearing carried a political overtone because the lingering health issues have raised questions about Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s handling of worker safety at ground zero, now that he is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. But at the hearing Mrs. Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, did not direct blame at the Giuliani administration for the failure to require that all workers at the site wear respirators.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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