Congressman Bill Pascrell

Representing the 9th District of NEW JERSEY

Still Touting The Administration Line

Jun 27, 2007

PEOPLE ARE SICK and dying as a result of the contamination in the air after Sept. 11. In the six years since the attacks, a mountain of evidence exists telling us that thousands of people exposed to the air around the World Trade Center are suffering from chronic respiratory disease and cancers. Now, for the first time since the aftermath, Congress is finally using its oversight responsibility to investigate why administration officials told us the air was safe to breathe.

This is not some silly partisan escapade, as members of the Bush communications team would have you believe. Instead, this is a long overdue effort by Congress to ensure that the victims have the answers they deserve -- and that measures are put in place to prevent such enormous government errors from taking place again.

I was glad to be a part of this week's Judiciary Committee hearing in which Christie Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified. As the administration official who was charged with assuring New Yorkers that the air was breathable after the attacks, Whitman was expcted to be forthcoming and open about the serious inaccuracies our government sold.

Instead, her loyalty to the Bush administration seems to remain unbroken, and her talking points touting the competency of the response continue.

The fact is, when the World Trade Center collapsed, a blanket of poisonous dust enveloped lower Manhattan. A venomous mixture of asbestos, lead, dioxin, mercury and other hazardous contaminants surged around the site of the disaster as rescue workers toiled in the wreckage, many without adequate protective gear.

Thousands of people inhaled this dust before it settled onto and into homes, shops and office buildings.

Inadequate information

Yet following the attacks we were told by Whitman that the "air is safe to breathe" and that New Yorkers "need not be concerned about environmental issues as they return to their homes and workplaces." We now know that the EPA did not have the proper information to make such assurances.

Why the haste, why the rush? Perhaps, as Whitman stated at the hearing, it was because the president wanted to see the stock exchanges reopened as soon as possible. Perhaps, as she also stated, doing otherwise would "let the terrorists win."

I understand the desire we all felt to show the world how quickly America could rebound from an assault. But our effort to return to normal as soon as possible should not have trumped sound reason and judgment.

I don't believe that Whitman is a bad person. I think she did a bad job.

And I don't know why she continues to fall on her sword for this administration. The EPA's own inspector general described a process by which the White House "influenced... the information that the EPA communicated to the public when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." Yet when confronted with this, Whitman continued her message that she fully and truthfully informed New Yorkers about the health hazards faced.

Right now Bellevue Hospital is treating 1,300 lower Manhattan residents for respiratory ailments that came on after Sept. 11, and the number is growing by the week. A study released last year by Mount Sinai Medical Center found that 70 percent of the more than 9,000 first responders studied suffer health problems related to their work at Ground Zero, a study, it must be noted, that Whitman told us she has yet to read.

Perhaps, if she takes the suggestion I offered at the hearing to heart -- namely, to read the report and the suffering it describes -- she might decide to stop covering for the severe mistakes made by the administration.

We in Congress will continue to engage in vigorous oversight on this issue -- and we must. The heroes and victims of Sept. 11 and the workers who continue to live with the consequences of the disaster deserve nothing less.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.