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Whitman: 9/11 health woes are city's fault

GRAHAM RAYMAN AND GLENN THRUSH | September 8 2006

Former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman is blaming the city for not forcing Ground Zero workers to wear respirators, prompting a fiery response from the city's top lawyer.

In a "60 Minutes" interview to air Sunday, Whitman maintains that the nation's leading environmental agency did not have authority to enforce rules at the site, though the agency did warn the city about dangers in the air at Ground Zero.

"We didn't have the authority to do that enforcement, but we communicated to the people who did," Whitman says in the interview with Katie Couric.

"EPA was very firm in what it communicated and it did communicate up and down the line [to city officials]," Whitman says, referring to the city as the "primary responder."

"In no uncertain terms?" Couric asks.

"Uh-huh, in no uncertain terms," Whitman replies.

Michael Cardozo, the city's corporation counsel, responded sternly and unequivocally.

"Ms. Whitman's latest comments do not reflect what happened in the days and weeks after this attack," Cardozo said in a statement Thursday night. "The city obtained respirators for employees and workers and stressed every day repeatedly that their use was required while working on the pile or performing certain tasks."

"When New York City was attacked on Sept. 11, all of America was attacked -- and the City of New York did everything within its power to protect those who participated in the recovery effort," he said.

Rudolph Giuliani, who was mayor at the time, also said repeatedly that the air was safe.

Former deputy mayor Joe Lhota, in a response to questions posed to a spokeswoman for Giuliani, said, "The EPA publicly reported that the general air quality was safe and the city repeatedly instructed workers on the pile to use their respirators."

Five years later, early statements by public officials about air quality have butted up against the reality of thousands of people sickened as a result of working or living near the disaster site. That reality was underscored earlier this week by a Mount Sinai Medical Center study of first responders' health, showing that 7 out of 10 of them suffer chronic long ailments.

During the intensive debris removal operation, officials from both the EPA and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, though visible at the site, opted to maintain an "advisory role," records show. Therefore, no one forced workers -- through threat of fines or expulsion from the site -- to wear respirators until very late in the six-month effort.

Many Ground Zero workers, who worked exhausting 12-hour shifts, did not wear the equipment for several reasons: They complained the masks were difficult to wear and it was hard to breathe and hard to talk in them.

As Newsday reported Aug. 27, OSHA reports from September 2001 through March indicated that fewer than 45 percent of construction workers at Ground Zero wore respirators. The rate among police officers and firefighters was only slightly better, the reports show.

By contrast, workers removing debris from and cleaning up the Pentagon crash site were not allowed on-site if they were not wearing respirators.

Despite Whitman's current claims, her remarks at the time suggested that the air at Ground Zero was not a major health hazard.

She was quoted in Newsday on Sept. 15, 2001, as saying, "There is no reason for concern," referring to asbestos measurements at Ground Zero and elsewhere in lower Manhattan. And on Sept. 16, she said, "New York is safe."

In the "60 Minutes" interview, Whitman draws a fine distinction regarding her earlier statements, saying she was referring to the ambient air around lower Manhattan, not Ground Zero itself.

"We never lied," she says.

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