Government defends former EPA chief's statements about safety at ground zero

Thursday, September 21st 2006, 10:19 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The former Environmental Protection Agency chief should not be blamed for telling residents near the World Trade Center site that the area was safe after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the government told an appeals court Thursday.

Federal officials also argued that a lower court judge was wrong to force Christine Todd Whitman to face a 2004 lawsuit by people in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous dust and debris from the fallen twin towers.

``It is difficult to fathom a pull as strong as the need to calm public fears in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in our nation's history,'' government lawyers wrote in papers submitted to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The government lawyers rejected claims that Whitman should be held personally liable for the environmental consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks and made to pay damages to clean homes, schools and businesses, and forced to create a fund for medical monitoring of victims.

``No decision of any court remotely suggests that a public statement, even a misleading public statement, could violate the substantive due process rights of thousands of individuals,'' the papers filed by Department of Justice lawyers in Washington said.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts in Manhattan refused to dismiss Whitman as a defendant, calling her actions ``conscience-shocking.''

``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,'' Batts wrote.

The government then asked for permission to appeal the decision.

In its submission Thursday, the government noted that the plaintiffs did not allege that the public statements by Whitman were intended to cause harm.

``In essence, plaintiffs invite the court to second-guess ... the policy judgments made by federal officials in the wake of the September 11 attacks,'' the government said.

The EPA's Office of the Inspector General eventually criticized the agency's response, saying it did not have enough information to support statements in the days after the attacks that the air was safe.

The EPA's internal watchdog found the agency, at the urging of the White House, gave misleading assurances that the airborne dust posted no health risk.

A telephone message left with lawyers for the plaintiffs was not immediately returned Thursday.