Senators praise, criticize EPA for Sept. 11 response

New York and New Jersey senators generally applauded the post-Sept. 11 work of EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, but Manhattan activists treated her less gently. At a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing Tuesday, Whitman and Federal Emergency Management Agency director Joe Allbaugh received praise for their response after the unprecedented suicide plane bombing disasters, especially at the World Trade Center.

Environment and Public Works Chairman James Jeffords, I-Vt., said the federal government response "went remarkably well" but wondered if EPA's new role in homeland security was taking the focus from its main mission of protecting the overall environment.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., thanked both for their efforts and concern but said air quality, environmental and other issues remain to be addressed. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., called their work "outstanding" but pointed to problems remaining, such as protecting chemical plants, saying, "There are security gaps."

Whitman said an outside, objective study she commissioned "concluded that EPA responded successfully." But she added, "We can always do better," and then gave a shopping list of steps she has taken.

"The biggest lesson learned from 9/11 is the need for Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal government to be flexible," said Allbaugh, who added the United States must be prepared for another attack in the future.

Madelyn Wils, a Manhattan community activist and director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, was more critical, although Whitman had finished testifying and was not in the room to hear her criticism.

"In the wake of the attacks, the EPA took a back seat to the mayor's office instead of taking charge of the public health efforts," Wils said. "It was their responsibility to clean up this devastated community that lived with the dust plume, debris that invaded our homes and businesses, and the fires that continuously burned for five months."

Wils noted that EPA's initiation of indoor testing and cleaning of air in residences was applauded but "these efforts may be characterized, however, as too little too late." She said the clean-up program started enrolling people and apartments only this summer, nearly a year after the attack.

"By this time, the overwhelming majority of residents had returned to apartments cleaned unprofessionally or by workers without government oversight or scientific standards," Wils said.

Earlier in the hearing, Clinton asked Whitman to extend the Oct. 2 deadline for enrolling in the cleanup campaign, but Whitman answered indirectly, saying it was up to FEMA.