Image: Smoke in lower Manhattan
Doug Kanter  /  AFP / Getty Images file
Lower Manhattan, seen on Sept. 12, 2001, was covered in smoke and dust following the terrorist attacks that caused the World Trade towers to collapse.
updated 2/2/2006 7:24:12 PM ET 2006-02-03T00:24:12

A federal judge blasted former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman on Thursday for reassuring New Yorkers soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that it was safe to return to their homes and offices while toxic dust was polluting the neighborhood.

U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts refused to grant Whitman immunity against a class-action lawsuit brought in 2004 by residents, students and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous materials from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

“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,” the judge said.

She called Whitman’s actions “conscience-shocking,” saying the EPA chief knew that the fall of the twin towers released tons of hazardous materials into the air.

A call to a spokeswoman for Whitman was not immediately returned.

The judge let the lawsuit proceed against the EPA and Whitman, permitting the plaintiffs to try to prove that the agency and its administrator endangered their health.

Lawsuit asks for medical monitoring
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and reimbursement for cleanup costs and asks the court to order that a medical monitoring fund be set up to track the health of those exposed to trade center dust.

In her ruling, Batts noted that the EPA and Whitman said repeatedly — beginning just two days after the attack — that the air appeared safe to breathe. The EPA’s internal watchdog later found that the agency, at the urging of White House officials, gave misleading assurances.

Quoting a ruling in an earlier case, the judge said a public official cannot be held personally liable for putting the public in harm’s way unless the conduct was so egregious as “to shock the contemporary conscience.” Given her role in protecting the health and environment for Americans, Whitman’s reassurances after Sept. 11 were “without question conscience-shocking,” Batts said.

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