NEW YORK – A federal judge on Thursday blasted former Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman for telling residents and workers in lower Manhattan that the air was safe to breathe immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Whitman’s deliberate and misleading statements to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to those areas, shocks the conscience,” Manhattan Federal Judge Deborah Batts wrote.
Batts’ scathing remarks came in a pretrial opinion in a class-action lawsuit filed by students, workers and residents of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who say Whitman and other officials knowingly presented a false rosy picture of air-quality issues after the towers fell.
“The good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern,” Whitman said just five days after the attacks.
The New York Daily News refuted Whitman’s claim a month later, citing the EPA’s own air quality studies, gathered via the Freedom of Information Act.
It is now accepted that the towers’ collapse released a cloud of hazardous substances across lower Manhattan that included lead from 50,000 personal computers and some 2,000 tons of asbestos.
Several rescue and cleanup workers have since developed cancer and other maladies doctors have linked to the air around Ground Zero.
Whitman could not be reached for comment Thursday. The EPA said it was reviewing the 83-page opinion.
Batts agreed to let the lawsuit proceed over the objections of EPA lawyers, clearing an important legal hurdle for the thousands who could recover damages if the lawsuit succeeds.
“The court recognized that the EPA undertook the concerted effort to avoid its responsibility and this decision affords us the opportunity to give the aggrieved residents and members of the New York City community their day in court,” said Justin Blitz, an attorney for the residents.