On eve of hearing, N.Y. residents gather at ground zero to discuss health problems

Friday, September 8th 2006, 8:48 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Angry residents gathered near ground zero to denounce the government's handling of Sept. 11-related health problems, saying they have been ignored for years.

Their complaints were likely to be echoed during a congressional committee hearing Friday morning in New York where lawmakers intend to grill federal officials about the absence of medical treatment for thousands who were exposed to the World Trade Center ruins.

``Collateral damage, that's what I feel like,'' tenant group leader Diane Lapson said at a meeting held at a church across the street from the World Trade Center site.

Tom Goodkind, a 52-year-old accountant, complained that while help programs existed for those who worked on the debris pile, little was done for people who lived nearby.

``I don't think that any of these groups have looked at the children of our neighborhoods,'' he said.

Dr. John Howard, the federal coordinator of Sept. 11 health programs, told the crowd Thursday he would make sure officials in Washington, D.C., heard their complaints.

``I am doing the best I can to make sure they know how you feel,'' he said.

The protest came as former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Todd Whitman said the responsibility of forcing debris pile workers to wear protective gear lay with the city and not the EPA.

Whitman told CBS' ``60 Minutes'' that EPA did not have authority over the site. She also said she provided an accurate assessment of the air quality following the attacks, distinguishing between air in lower Manhattan and that near the wreckage.

``The readings (in lower Manhattan) were showing us that there was nothing that gave us any concern about long-term health implications,'' she said in the interview to air Sunday. ``That was different from on the pile itself, at ground zero. There, we always said consistently, 'You've got to wear protective gear.'''

Many working in the wreckage did not wear masks, and Whitman conceded there may have been confusion over the message.

``It's hard to know _ when people hear what they want to hear and there's so much going on, that maybe they didn't make the distinction,'' she said.

In Washington, the Bush administration said Thursday it will continue to help sick Sept. 11 workers, but would not say what their long-term health needs might cost.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who met with members of New York's congressional delegation and other lawmakers and advocates, said that by the end of October, Sept. 11 health programs would receive $75 million.

``If the $75 million proves to be inadequate, the federal government will be part of a coordinated effort to solve whatever the balance of the problem is,'' Leavitt told reporters after the meeting. ``We have a responsibility. We will meet it.''

Public pressure for greater government action on Sept. 11 health problems began building this year after an autopsy concluded that a New York police detective's fatal respiratory disease was caused by exposure to toxic dust and fumes at ground zero.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., said $75 million is a good start but won't come close to providing all the treatment needed for those suffering with lung problems, gastrointestinal disease and mental health woes.

The treatment money was originally part of the Bush administration's $21 billion aid package to New York after Sept. 11 but became embroiled in a yearlong legislative battle when congressional leaders decided to take it back.

``We've been down this road before,'' said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. ``We've heard a lot of promises, and they haven't always been fulfilled, but we are very hopeful that now we will see action.''

On Tuesday, Mount Sinai released a study concluding that nearly 70 percent of ground zero workers suffered lung problems, and many of them would likely be sick for the rest of their lives.