A day before the 15-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has finally admitted that she may have been wrong about the safety of the air in the city following the incident.
"I'm very sorry that people are sick," Whitman told the Guardian. "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."
In the days and weeks following the destruction of the Twin Towers, residents of lower Manhattan expressed concerns regarding local air quality in the wake of the particle debris and toxins spread by the fall of the buildings.
At the time, Whitman took great pains to assure residents in the surrounding neighborhoods were safe. While acknowledging that the destruction of the buildings had released asbestos, lead volatile organic compounds (VOCs), at the time, she repeatedly stated that the concentrations of the materials in the air did “not pose a public health hazard," and said that the "public in these areas [is] not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances."
However, in a 2003 report from the EPA's inspector general, Whitman's claims following the attack were deemed, at best, unverifiable and, at worst, false.
"When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," read the EPA report. "Because of numerous uncertainties — including the extent of the public’s exposure and a lack of health-based benchmarks — a definitive answer to whether the air was safe to breathe may not be settled for years to come."
In the years following the attack, as more and more people who were in lower Manhattan at the time either died or became gravely ill (in many cases, the causes remain unclear), there is increasing attention devoted to the air safety claims made during the attack as it unfolded.
Now, after years of relative silence on the matter, Whitman is finally addressing those concerns and apologizing for any mistakes that may have been made during her time as the head of the EPA.
"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," said Whitman.
According to the report, over 37,000 people registered with the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP), which was set up in 2011 to address those who believe their health was impacted by the toxins spread in Manhattan following the attack. The report states that over 1,100 of those registered in the program have died.
And while some still hold Whitman to blame for assuring residents that the air was safe to breathe, in 2008 a federal court ruled that she could not be held liable.
Whitman's new statements come after years of her stance adamantly denying any wrongdoing on her or the EPA's part.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in 2007 (see video, above), Whitman remained steadfast in her position that she and the EPA had not misled the public.
Nevertheless, the weight of the incident and her role in handling its aftermath is clearly weighing on her, even 15 years later, as her recent statements to the Guardian indicate.
“Whatever we got wrong, we should acknowledge," said Whitman, "and people should be helped.”