On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below are solely those of the author.

2006_02_04_thegoodlife.jpgThis week a federal judge served up former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman with an entirely warranted wake-up call. While more than 5,000 residents, workers and students from Lower Manhattan have filed a class action lawsuit accusing Whitman and the E.P.A. of misleading them about the health risks involved in breathing the air near Ground Zero, Whitman, seeing herself somehow exempt, had filed to dismiss the case.

That ain’t happening.

The class action suit goes specifically after Whitman, threatening to hold her personally liable. After all, as soon as two days after the attacks she was assuring New Yorkers that the air was safe to breathe. Yes, it would have been better if you had said, “No, we don’t know. Please stay clear of the area without a respirator.”

It’s actually very difficult to really nab a public official. There’s plenty of fine print, but it comes down to the fact that an official’s conduct has to be so egregious as “to shock the contemporary conscience.” Considering that now more than four years since the attacks, there’s still no conclusive evidence about the safety of the air in and around the World Trade Center, it’s outrageous, and according to U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts “conscience-shocking” that Whitman could have led her agency in the weeks and months following the attacks to assure truth-hungry New Yorkers that all was dandy.

Only, Whitman’s not the only one to blame. It’s no secret that the White House leaned on the E.P.A. to reassure New Yorkers that it was safe to return to work. Their chief concern? Restarting Wall Street and the financial markets. And it wasn’t just the wily free press conjuring up conspiracy theories; the story actually came from the E.P.A.’s own inspector general.

Appalling.

Numbers vary widely, but word of the Trade Center Cough is spreading. Experts offer varying assessments, but when science needs time to assess and contemplate, sometimes harrowing stories speak for themselves. The Daily News, who has time and
again battled officials on the faux-rosy portraits they painted, is right to call for an official, conclusive word to both close this disgusting chapter of 9/11 and give those affected the information they need.

Over the years, bigwigs at the E.P.A. have tried to weasel away from responsibility by blaming the cumbersome nature of bureaucracy and arguing that, as 9/11 was like nothing we’d ever seen, the E.P.A. was simply ill-equipped to adapt to such a fast-changing and utterly unprecedented situation. That’s hogwash. If it’s acceptable in a dire situation for our public officials to sit on their hands because they’d rather slump down in their seats and keep quiet instead of standing up to tackle a life-and-death situation, then perhaps we should take a long, hard, look at the funding for these organizations and see if they can’t keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years with a whole lot less.

50,000 personal computers and 2,000 tons of asbestos fell with the towers. I woke up the next morning to the sound of “Let It Be” on the radio in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn –across the river and then some from Ground Zero – and when I walked to the store, that gray dust had settled on car windows so thick that you could write messages in it with your finger. A year after the attacks, the air around ground zero showed amplified levels of benzene, lead, mercury, PCBs, asbestos and fiberglass. Two years after, thousands had become sick.

It’s hardly a stretch to say there’s something very wrong here, and four years hence, people deserve answers. Whitman may be held accountable, and rightly so. What’s more important is that the shameless practice of passing the buck on this issue from
government agency to agency has to stop. While the World Trade Center Health Registry is beginning a 20-year project to track 200,000 people exposed to the disaster, someone has to step up to the plate.

As the cost of the war on terror is well into the hundreds of billions of dollars, (side note: so strange how few people are asking if this isn’t too much!?) it makes absolutely no sense that some of those Americans most directly affected by the attacks are being left hung out to dry. Can someone accept responsibility and tell us without their fingers crossed if our own city is safe to live in?

Andrew Bast makes children’s books during the day and writes opinion columns at night. He’s selling his first novel, “The Casualty” and can be reached at acbast at gmail dot com.

Photo detail from the cover of The Good Life