Judge Slams Ex-EPA Chief Over Sept. 11

Thursday, February 2, 2006

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(02-02) 21:52 PST New York (AP) --

A federal judge blasted former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman on Thursday for reassuring New Yorkers soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that it was safe to return to their homes and offices while toxic dust was polluting the neighborhood.

U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts refused to grant Whitman immunity against a class-action lawsuit brought in 2004 by residents, students and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous materials from the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," the judge said.

She called Whitman's actions "conscience-shocking," saying the EPA chief knew that the collapse of the twin towers released tons of hazardous materials into the air.

Whitman had no comment, according to a spokeswoman. A Justice Department spokesman said the government had no comment.

Spokeswoman Mary Mears said the EPA was reviewing the opinion but was pleased that the court had dismissed two of four civil claims against the agency, including allegations brought under the federal Superfund law.

"The EPA will continue to vigorously defend against the outstanding claims," she said.

The judge let the lawsuit proceed against the EPA and Whitman, permitting the plaintiffs to try to prove that the agency and its administrator endangered their health.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and reimbursement for cleanup costs and asks the court to order that a medical monitoring fund be set up to track the health of those exposed to trade center dust.

In her ruling, Batts noted that the EPA and Whitman said repeatedly — beginning just two days after the attack — that the air appeared safe to breathe. The EPA's internal watchdog later found that the agency, at the urging of White House officials, gave misleading assurances.

Quoting a ruling in an earlier case, the judge said a public official cannot be held personally liable for putting the public in harm's way unless the conduct was so egregious as "to shock the contemporary conscience." Given her role in protecting the health and environment for Americans, Whitman's reassurances after Sept. 11 were "without question conscience-shocking," Batts said.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said in a statement that New Yorkers are still depending on the federal government to describe any ongoing risk from contaminants.

"I continue to believe that the White House owes New Yorkers an explanation," she said.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes the trade center site, said the many people who worked at the site and developed respiratory diseases deserve answers.

"It is my assumption that thousands of people — workers and residents — are being slowly poisoned today because these workplaces and residences were never properly cleaned up," Nadler said in a telephone interview.

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