Saturday, April 21, 2007

Feds backed in WTC air case

Federal officials can't be held liable for painting a rosy picture of lower Manhattan's air quality after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that tossed out a lawsuit by five emergency workers. The workers, who say they all suffer ailments related to their work at Ground Zero, charge that former Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman misled them by issuing public statements assuring them the air was safe.

The court's chief judge, Dennis Jacobs, said holding public officials accountable for releasing bad information could have a chilling effect on future government responses during a crisis.

"Officials might default to silence in the face of the public's urgent need for information," Jacobs wrote.

In passing, Jacobs also took a dim view of a related lawsuit currently on appeal that was filed by students, workers and residents of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Last year, Manhattan Federal Judge Deborah Batts refused to dismiss that suit, saying, "Whitman's deliberate and misleading statements to the press" about air quality "shocks the conscience."

Jacobs said the panel disagreed with Batts' reasoning.

Five days after the attacks, Whitman said, "The good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern."

The collapse of the towers released a cloud of hazardous dust across lower Manhattan, including lead from personal computers and asbestos. Thousands of workers say they have suffered ill health as a result of their time at Ground Zero.

"There is a prospect, essentially, that these people will get nothing through the court system," said Stephen Riegel, the attorney representing the five workers: a national guardsman, a deputy U.S. marshal and three city Emergency Medical Service workers.

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