While Schumer Slept

For five years, New York's senior senator said nothing about the toxic cloud that hung over his own constituents.

"In all the negotiations," says one labor representative who participated in the lobbying fight for the WTC funds, "Schumer was just absent."

"He didn't do the work," adds a former delegate tied to the United Firefighters Association who got involved in the effort. "It was all Clinton."

Even sources close to Clinton confirm as much. Attests O'Leary, "I can say it wasn't his battle and he didn't go out of his way to help. It's accurate to say he was absent, yes."

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

If Schumer was missing in action on these early efforts to aid ground zero workers, his absence was even more conspicuous to those who worked and lived downtown. In February 2002, Clinton used her seat on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to highlight the 9-11 health issues—holding a hearing in Manhattan, grilling government officials on the cleanup. By then, Nadler had become the loudest champion of the cause—hosting Wall Street forums attracting hundreds of people made ill by the toxins, dogging the EPA about its inadequate testing. At the hearing, the congressman requested that Clinton ask some tough questions to city and federal officials, putting pressure on the EPA. Within months, the two stood together as the agency announced it would test for toxic dust inside skyscrapers.

Schumer could not have held this hearing; he wasn't on the key committee. But he could have participated in it, and didn't. Nor did he sign on to Clinton's three letters to Whitman at that time about the toxic aftereffects.

The only public statement Schumer made on the 9-11 health fallout came in February 2002, the day after Clinton's hearing, when he told The New York Times that he had no regrets sending his daughter back to Stuyvesant. "The health of your child is the number one thing you care about," he said, "but at the same time you try not to allow unsubstantiated fear to overcome the actual facts." Days later, the Daily News would report that the EPA ombudsman found that the debris barge had re-contaminated Stuyvesant High with trade center dust.

Schumer's aides insist he was keeping tabs on efforts to clean up the contamination and to provide health care to ailing people downtown. Maintains the Schumer aide, "Chuck was always supportive of these efforts."

Many 9-11 advocates remember inviting the senator to attend town hall meetings in the spring and summer of 2002 on the 9-11 health crisis, or copying his office on July 2003 letters addressed to the EPA about its "inept and haphazard" cleanup plans, or even seeking help for ground-zero-related injuries. Some traveled to Capitol Hill loaded down with tools of persuasion: articles on the toxic dust, surveys of sick students, independent tests showing high levels of asbestos inside apartments. At times, they met with Schumer's aides, who listened to their appeals.

"They don't say, 'Not my problem,' " says Orkin, who lobbied Schumer's office on behalf of 9/11 Environmental Action and the World Trade Center Environmental Organization a half-dozen times from 2002 to 2005. "But nothing significant ever came out of my lobbying trips." No requests to attend press events, nor any announcements of funding—things that did come out of trips to the offices of Clinton, Nadler, and Maloney.

By August 2003, many advocates had given up on Schumer. That month, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing report concluding the agency had watered down its ground zero warnings on orders from the White House—sparking outrage among the congressional allies.

Clinton and Nadler called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the EPA. The junior senator, meanwhile, used her Senate committee seat to force the agency to form a blue-ribbon panel to draft a second cleanup plan and survey community health needs. She wrote two letters to Bush demanding accountability, and on the Senate floor, she railed against the White House for misleading New Yorkers. "Dictating what the EPA can generally say is inexcusable," she told her colleagues, "but making them misinform the public on such a critical issue is outrageous."

Schumer did not join in her calls for an investigation. Nor did he sign on to her letters or make a floor speech. He barely voiced his support, let alone his outrage. "While it is understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist," he told reporters, "if the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, we'll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9-11."

Two years later, Schumer at last expressed public outrage over the 9-11 living victims. It was June 2, 2005, and the Bush administration was trying to take back $125 million in aid for sick ground zero workers—aid that had come from the original billions he'd helped fight for and protect. Energetic in any money fight, Schumer held his first press conference on the 9-11 health issues, standing beside labor leaders, and blasting the president for reneging on a promise.

"Providing health care for the heroes who selflessly gave of themselves after 9-11 is absolutely consistent with the promise of our government to do whatever it takes to get New York back on its feet," he declared.

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