By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
5. 'Every effort was made by Mayor Giuliani and his staff to ensure the safety of all workers at Ground Zero.'So read a Giuliani campaign statement in June, responding to a chorus of questions about the mayor's responsibility for the respiratory plague that threatens the health of tens of thousands of workers at the World Trade Center site, apparently already having killed some.
The statement pointed a finger at then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, issuing a list of the many times that "Whitman assured New Yorkers the air was safe." Instead of also detailing the many times Giuliani echoed Whitmanfor example, "the air is safe and acceptable," he said on September 28the campaign cited several Fire Department "briefings" about "incident action plans" for the use of respirators, suggesting that the city had tried to get responders to protect themselves from the toxins at Ground Zero. The press release did not make a case that any of these "plans" had ever resulted in any real "action"; nor did it dispute the fact that as late as the end of October, only 29 percent of the workers at the site were wearing respirators. Of course, the workers might have noticed that the photo-op mayor never put one on himself. Instead, the other 9/11 visual we all remember is Giuliani leading at Ground Zero by macho example: The most in the way of protective gear he was ever seen wearing was a dust mask on his mouth.
When the cleanup effort was widely hailed as under-budget and ahead of schedule, there was no doubt about who was in charge. "By Day 4," the New York Times reported in a salute to the "Quick Job" at Ground Zero, "Mr. Giuliani, the Department of Design and Construction (D.D.C.), the Office of Emergency Management, contractors and union officials decided it was time to bring order to the chaos." Giuliani controlled access to the site as if it were his backyard. Yet, when the scope of the health disaster was clear on the fifth anniversary in 2006, he told ABC: "Everybody's responsible." Throwing federal, state, and city agencies into the mix, he diffused the blame. On the Todayshow the same morning, however, he was more accusatory: "EPA put out statements very, very prominent that you have on tape, that the air was safe, and kept repeating that and kept repeating that."
The city had its own test results, of course, and when 17 of 87 outdoor tests showed hazardous levels of asbestos up to seven blocks away, they decided not to make the results public. An EPA chief, Bruce Sprague, sent an October 5 letter to the city complaining about "very inconsistent compliance" with respiratory protection. Sprague, who wrote the letter only after unsuccessful conversations with Giuliani aides, likened the indifference in a subsequent court deposition to sticking one's head "over a barbecue grill for hours" and expecting no consequences. An internal legal memo to a deputy mayor estimated early in the cleanup that there could be 35,000 potential plaintiffs against the city, partly because rescue workers were "provided with faulty or no equipment (i.e. respirators)." Bechtel, the major construction firm retained by the city as its health and safety consultant, urged it to cut the exit-entry points from 20 to two so they could enforce the use of respirators and other precautions, just as was done at the Pentagon, but the recommendation was ignored.
A Times editorial concluded in May that the Giuliani administration "failed in its duty to protect the workers at Ground Zero," faulting its "emphasis on a speedy cleanup" and its unwillingness "to insist that all emergency personnel and construction workers wear respirators." John Odermatt, a former OEM director working at the campaign, couldn't tell the Times whether Giuliani had lobbied Congress on behalf of sick workers, nor could anyone at the campaign offer any evidence that Giuliani had ever, while earning millions at his new 9/11 consulting business in recent years, tried to secure federal funds for responders.
Should the current presidential frontrunners square off in 2008, Giuliani's culpability and subsequent indifference at Ground Zero will, no doubt, be sharply contrasted to Hillary Clinton's singular role in funding the Mount Sinai programs that have been aiding rescue workers for years. And the public price tag for the mismanagement at the pile (as the site was known among recovery and rescue workers) will run into the billions. Ken Feinberg, who ran the federally funded Victims Compensation Board, has already paid out $1 billion to the injured, concluding after individual hearings that hundreds "were diagnosed with demonstrable and documented respiratory injuries directly related to their rescue service." Anthony DePalma, whose extraordinary Times stories have lifted the lid on Giuliani's role, recently reported that the health-care costs for rescue workers could soar to as much as $712 million a year. And the city is administering a billion-dollar liability fund to satisfy the thousands of lawsuits.
Giuliani's fellow Republican and former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman did tell WNBC a couple of months ago that there were "telephone calls, telephone meetings, and meetings in person with the city" every day, with the EPA repeating "the message" and emphasizing the "necessity of wearing the respirators." Whitman said she "would call my people at midnight after watching the 11 o'clock news and say, 'I'm still seeing them without the respirators.' " The EPA, she said, "was very frustrated." She also said "the better thing would've been to put out the fire sooner," certainly a function of the city's Fire Department, adding that it had "burned until January"a continuous flame held to a smoking, toxic brew. Asked about the mayor himself, Whitman sputtered: "He was clearly in control and doing a good job. Everyone was applauding what was going on. EPA, we had some disagreements with things that were occurring on the pile, like not having people wear respiratorswe wanted more emphasis on that. But overall, you know, it's hard. Those are emotional times."