Former EPA head admits she was wrong to tell New Yorkers post-9/11 air was safe
Christine Todd Whitman, who reassured the public over Ground Zero air, says: ‘I’m sorry. We did the very best we could … with the knowledge we had’
Joanna Walters in New York
Christine Todd Whitman, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under George W Bush at the time of the 9/11 attacks told the public the air around Ground Zero in New York was safe to breathe, has admitted for the first time she was wrong.
Among those who were exposed to toxins released when the World Trade Center collapsed, the toll of illness and death continues to rise.
Speaking to the Guardian for a report on the growing health crisis to be published on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the attacks, Whitman made an unprecedented apology to those affected but denied she had ever lied about the air quality or known at the time it was dangerous.
“Whatever we got wrong, we should acknowledge and people should be helped,” she said, adding that she still “feels awful” about the tragedy and its aftermath.
“I’m very sorry that people are sick,” she said. “I’m very sorry that people are dying and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry. We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”
She added: “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, [they say] people have died because I made a mistake.”
A week after two hijacked passenger jets were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center, killing 2,753 people – 184 died in the Pentagon in Washington DC and 40 were killed when a United Airlines plane came down in a field in Pennsylvania – Whitman issued a statement. It said: “I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.”
She has always maintained that as head of the EPA she was simply passing on what government scientists were telling her, warning those working at Ground Zero itself to wear respirators but dismissing concerns over the surrounding area, which was engulfed in dust and ash.
Three days after the attacks, Whitman, who had previously been the Republican governor of New Jersey, told reporters: “The good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern.”
In 2003, the EPA inspector general criticized the agency’s handling of the crisis, finding that the EPA had no basis for its swift pronouncements about air quality. Politicians, including the then New York senator Hillary Clinton, laid into the Bush administration, accusing it of deceiving the public.
More than 37,000 people registered with the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP), a federal organisation set up in 2011 to oversee those affected by exposure to the toxins released at Ground Zero, have been declared sick. Many have chronic respiratory illnesses or cancer.
More than 1,100 people covered by the WTCHP have died. That number includes first responders who were at Ground Zero and people who lived and worked in the surrounding area.
A WTCHP spokeswoman, Christy Spring, said: “We have a list of health conditions that the program provides medical monitoring and treatment for, established by the government to have been related to exposure to the dust and debris from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.”
Whitman said: “If people are dying from this – and I have not seen the data – and they had believed everything was fine, then you have got to blame the message they were hearing, and what they were hearing was that the ambient air quality in Lower Manhattan at the time was OK.”
Jerrold Nadler, a veteran US congressman whose district covers the World Trade Center site, told the Guardian on Thursday that Whitman had never admitted she had been wrong about the air quality.
“She knew or should have known” the air was dangerous, he said.
In 2008, Nadler accused Whitman of causing thousands to suffer injury “and in some cases death” due to “unnecessary exposure to toxins released by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings”.
In a ruling in a lawsuit brought by New York residents that year, a federal appeals court ruled that Whitman could not be held liable for health problems caused by the air around Ground Zero.
On Friday, Whitman questioned the level of proof that the air made people sick, but said: “If this is a direct relation, we all screwed up.” She thought she was right at the time, she said, but added: “I can believe that the scientists may not have had all the information they needed.”
Shortly after the attack on New York, Whitman said it was known that asbestos, lead and other toxins were in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, known as “the pile”, and that those working on rescue and recovery there should wear respirators. Most did not.
As the city under Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the work at Ground Zero rather than the federal government, Whitman said, she had had no authority to enforce the recommended wearing of safety equipment.
At the time, she said that beyond the pile, in the surrounding neighborhoods and the rest of Manhattan, the air did “not pose a public health hazard”.
- This article was amended on 10 September 2016 to clarify ambiguity in a quotation.