You would think that former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman was Osama bin Laden, judging from the nasty reaction she reportedly got at Monday’s Congressional hearing on the EPA’s response to 9/11. Whitman faced sharp criticism for her statement, a week after 9/11, that the air downtown—not directly on “the pile,” as the World Trade Center site was called—“was safe to breathe.” Interrogators implied that Whitman was incorrect, at best, and flat-out lying, at worst. An out-of-state representative even attacked Whitman for saying that 9/11 was personal for her, since her son was in 7 World Trade Center that morning.

Then there’s that small band of critics, including some 9/11 survivors, that haunts former mayor Rudolph Giuliani at his New York City campaign appearances, trying to shame him for various perceived 9/11-related infractions. Among other things, they charge that he failed to upgrade first responders’ radios with current technologies long before 9/11, and that he was negligent in not ensuring that recovery workers protected themselves with proper respiratory equipment on the pile and for opening Lower Manhattan to office workers too soon, when the air might not have been safe to breathe.

Was Whitman wrong to say the air downtown—again, not on the pile—was “safe”? Let’s remember that many of the EPA’s air quality tests in Lower Manhattan in the first month after 9/11 showed “slightly elevated” levels of asbestos in Battery Park City, and other tests found “detectable” levels, below what’s considered dangerous, in the Financial District. A few spots revealed higher levels. But the high-powered vacuuming the EPA was doing, both outside and inside, seemed to bring levels down below “concern” amounts.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that even “slightly elevated” asbestos levels anywhere in the area made it strictly correct, if one wanted to be 100 percent sure instead of relying on personal judgment in an unprecedented situation, to announce that it wasn’t possible to describe the air downtown as “safe.” Many questions would have followed: when could we have known if the air was safe enough for financial-industry workers and Battery Park City residents to return downtown? Would it have been safe in a month? What about New Year’s? How about by May 2002, when recovery workers finished major operations? What about today? Should the EPA have taken steps to declare Ground Zero a SuperFund site?

And what does “safe to breathe” mean, anyway? That an office worker wouldn’t suffer acute heartburn downtown during those months? That a person wouldn’t have, say, a 10 percent greater risk of cancer later in life? What about a 50 percent greater chance? How would we have known any of this back then, since we don’t even seem sure today?

I returned to work downtown in October 2001, in the office building closest to Ground Zero. When firefighters trained their hoses on the pile on a windy day, we walked through the spray. All of us could smell that burning-car smell in the air for many months. Does that mean it wasn’t “safe”? I’m not sure that it’s scientifically possible to know.

But what should officials have done, in the critics’ view? If they declared downtown a potential hazard to our health, businesses would have had no choice but to relocate, possibly dooming the area economically.

Likewise, it’s easy to say today that the mayor should have forced rescue workers to wear respirators and should have carefully monitored their hours at the site. But Giuliani surely knew back then that it would not have been possible to keep firefighters and police officers away from the smoldering pile of steel, or to curtail shifts so that they could use respirators properly; they were intent on finding lost colleagues.

September 11 doesn’t render Giuliani’s mayoralty off-limits to criticism. But his fiercest chastisers should remember: in the face of something previously unimaginable, the mayor made the entire world see that New York would survive. Today, his critics discount that feat; they say he only did what anyone would have done. Really? What about Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans?

A sober public discussion on the immediate reaction to 9/11 would be useful, including, for example, a discussion of whether or not the EPA did enough to supervise indoor cleanup in private buildings. But such a discussion won’t happen at present. Whitman, for example, likely knows to say as little as possible because she fears that the outcome of any of three pending private lawsuits could mean personal financial ruin.

To sum up: Critics and investigators should acknowledge two facts before they ask more questions. First, it would have been impossible to close downtown Manhattan for months, or years, on end. Second, it would have been impossible to keep rescue workers from toiling at Ground Zero as they saw fit. The first would have decimated New York, and the second would have been cruel (and difficult, practically, to enforce).

That was downtown’s reality in the days after 9/11, even if we don’t like to remember it. And neither Whitman nor Giuliani created it.


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