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Notre Dame and Gov. Whitman’s lingering 9/11 legacy

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Sunday’s New York Times reporting on the French government’s cover up of the serious public health dangers from the Notre Dame fire is sadly reminiscent of former New Jersey Governor and EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s post 9/11 declaration that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.

Writing of the official response to the environmental contamination aspect of the Paris disaster, the Times reported that the government’s “delays and denials have opened the authorities to accusations that they put the reconstruction of the cathedral….ahead of the health of thousands of people.”

In the case of the Notre Dame fire, the significant occupational and public health risk can be traced to the incineration of 400 tons of lead found in the cathedral’s roof and iconic spire. The Times noted that in dozens of public spaces, plazas and parks lead levels were 60 times the national safety standard for the metal that’s been linked to brain damage in small children.

For the greater good?

The scale of the two events are not comparable. But both are instances where governments concealing environmental hazards grew out of a paternalistic rationale that preserving continuity and calm trumped the truth and public health.

Whether it be the anxiety over the loss of face for not rebuilding Notre Dame fast enough, or the Bush administration’s desire to ‘send the terrorists a message’ by quickly opening Wall Street, these deceptions create armies of unwitting casualties those same governments will try and disown.

Or, so history tells us.

Three days after the 9/11 attack it was former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who told reporters that “the good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern.”

That upbeat and inaccurate statement was uttered as the fires at the World Trade Center site continued to burn and smolder until just before Christmas.

Two years after 9/11, a review by the EPA Inspector General concluded EPA “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” as “air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern.”

White House fingerprints

Moreover, the OIG learned that it was President George W. Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that heavily edited the EPA press releases “to add reassuring statements and delete........

© Salon