In the first frantic days following September 11th, America was looking to its leaders for reassurance and information. Were we safe from future attacks? Were we safe from the damage already done? Was there environmental fallout that could endanger our health?
WHITMAN [FROM TAPE]: From a real health problem... health concerns, we don't have to worry. But we are going to continue to monitor, we're going to continue to take samples and whatever we find, we are going to let people know.
BASKIN: Just two days after the attacks, Christie Whitman, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was at Ground Zero, reassuring both workers and the public that the air was safe to breathe. But was it?
BASKIN [ADDRESSING WHITMAN]: You made a statement, "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week I'm glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." Are you comfortable with that? Would you do anything differently?
WHITMAN: No. The people of New York City, in general, it was fine. Down there on that site you have to wear your protective gear. And nobody else was allowed in that site.
BASKIN: Critics say the EPA's reaction to 9/11 is just the latest example of how this agency has been putting politics ahead of environmental protection.
Christie Whitman resigned this past June, but the EPA's own Inspector General now says Whitman could have done a better job warning New Yorkers about the possible dangers here at Ground Zero, and the agency wasn't allowed to. The report concludes the EPA misled the public and did so on orders from the White House.
BASKIN [ADDRESSING WHITMAN]: So who gets to set the environmental agenda? Do you get to do it as EPA administrator? Or does the White House do it?
WHITMAN: Oh, the President is who was elected to run the country. I am a part of, or was a part of his administration. So the President sets overall environmental policy.
BASKIN: That pattern began shortly after Christie Whitman took over the EPA and started defending the President's environmental message…
WHITMAN [CNN CROSSFIRE]: He has also been very clear that the science is good on global warming. It does exist. There is a real problem that we as a world face from global warming.
But within weeks came the first sign that the President and his EPA chief were not in sync. Whitman was representing the U.S. At an environmental summit of the eight major industrialized nations in Trieste, Italy.
Their mission was to reach agreement on an international treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol designed to tackle global warming.
WHITMAN [FROM TAPE, MARCH 3, 2001]: The President has indicated he acknowledges that global warming is of primary importance. It is at top of his agenda.
BASKIN: The proposed treaty called for a significant reduction in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, within a specified period of time. Whitman led reporters to believe the President was all for it.
WHITMAN: When I said it over there, what happened was, everybody back here interpreted that as meaning we were going to support the Kyoto Protocol. And that set people nuts.
BASKIN: As it turned out global warming was far from the top of the President's agenda...
PRESIDENT BUSH [MARCH 29, 2001 OVAL OFFICE]: Our economy has slowed down in a country... in our country. We also have an energy crisis, and the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense for America.
BASKIN: Later that spring, President Bush walked away from the treaty on global warming.
PRESIDENT BUSH [FROM TAPE]: The Kyoto Protocol was fatally flawed in fundamental ways.
BASKIN: And that statement led to a barrage of criticism from around the world.
BASKIN: Was it embarrassing for you to, on the one hand, be saying that we do support it and then it's really undermined just a few weeks later?
WHITMAN: It was awkward. But it was never about me. And I knew that. It was not about me, it was about the issues. It was about energy mix. It was about dealing with this big issue of climate change. So, I never took it personally.
The President did apologize. He said he'd left me hanging out there.
BASKIN: Pulling out of the treaty would be the first in a series of decisions that critics say would mark a shift away from environmental protection during Whitman's two years at the EPA.
WHITMAN: The way we took ourselves out of Kyoto was what set up the problem. Because we didn't recognize. And we're bad in this country on our international... on understanding our role internationally.
Instead of recognizing that there were two things here... There was a Protocol. The treaty. And there was a process that lead to the treaty. Instead of recognizing the importance of that process, and saying to the world, "You've been working on this for ten years. We'll continue to work with you. You're not there yet. This is not the answer. This isn't gonna solve the problem. But we'll continue to work with you," we just made it sound as if we were disengaging entirely.
Episodes like this led Secretary of State Colin Powell to call Christie Whitman a "wind dummy."
WHITMAN: And a wind dummy is in the army it's something that you throw out of a plane before you're gonna do a landing or a jump to see which way the wind's blowing. And he was sort of joking that I had been thrown out of the plane when... after Kyoto and carbon.
Controversy dogged Christie Whitman up until she resigned last spring. Once again the issue was global warming.
One of Whitman's first directives as EPA administrator had been to order up a report card on the environment...a report card which, by the spring of 2003, had become politically radioactive. A trail of internal documents reveal what happened.
A November 2002 draft of the report contained strong language on global warming concluding that climate change has, quote, "global consequences for human health and the environment" and that global warming is, quote, "most likely a result of human activities."
But by the following April, an internal EPA document shows the White House removed that language and declared, quote, "no further changes may be made" to the report.
And it came at a time when environmentalists were pressing Whitman to stand up to the White House. Eric Schaeffer is the EPA's former Director of Enforcement.
SCHAEFFER: When you head a big powerful agency like EPA, you have to learn when to say no. You have to learn when to say, "It's my watch. And if the President doesn't like this decision, then he can have my resignation. I won't make that decision and stay on the job.
BASKIN: As the agency scrambled for a response to the White House, Whitman's staff offered her three possible options. She could "accept (White House) edits," "remove the climate change section," or finally, the staff suggested she go back to "try to reach (a) compromise." But they also warned her that option, quote, "may antagonize the White House." For Whitman, that was not an option at all.
SCHAEFFER: For Miss Whitman it was always about being a loyal Republican, being loyal to the White House. It was about being a Republican first and thinking about the environment somewhere after that.
WHITMAN: This was really just an instance of we couldn't get all the scientists from all these different venues to agree on what we could say on climate change.
BASKIN: But internal EPA documents refer to a quote "scientific consensus" within the EPA on global warming. So who exactly was opposed?
It turns out it was the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Its offices are across the street from the West Wing. And how many scientists are on its staff? None.
It's headed by James Connaughton, and who is he? A former lobbyist for power and electric utilities, the same industries who once opposed the very idea of global warming. That's where the ultimatum came from.
SCHAEFFER: This is a White House that took any discussion of global warming out of the EPA's report on the environment. They don't want to hear it if they don't agree with it. It's not about science. It's about politics.
WHITMAN: And the choice I had was either to put in some language that was basically pabulum on climate change. Or to leave it out.
When the report card was issued with no mention of global warming that omission made headlines, overshadowing everything else in the report.
BASKIN [ADDRESSING WHITMAN]: Were you troubled by having the White House that involved?
WHITMAN: Well, it was scientific consensus within the agency. I mean we were ready to say stuff. And we were ready to say it in pretty strong language. Other departments and agencies weren't. No. But what happens at The White House is, the Council on Environmental Quality, which kind of acts as the gatekeeper for all of the agencies that have anything to do with environment, environment issues...
BASKIN: But did they trump the EPA? I mean do you get to run the Environmental Protection Agency? Or do you have to listen and do what the Council on Environmental Quality says you should do?
WHITMAN: You run the agency, but when there are decisions that you're making that impact other agencies, that's where the CEQ comes in and tries to get everybody on the same page.
Eric Schaeffer says this kind of White House interference is why he resigned from the EPA last year.
SCHAEFFER: I'm used to compromise. I've worked in government most of my life. Under the Bush Administration I saw something else. This was not a matter of trying to find a reasonable balance. But of taking whatever the industry gave us and feeling like we had to eat it. We had to accept it no matter how wrong it was.
BASKIN: Schaeffer says the EPA had to accept White House interference even if it meant relaxing provisions of the clean air act that Whitman herself fought to uphold when she was the Governor of New Jersey.
Particularly the key provision of the act designed to control industrial emissions, it's called "New Source Review."
WHITMAN: New Source Review is part of the Clean Air Act. It was a tool designed to catch those utilities that made substantive changes, increase their emissions and were going beyond what they were allowed to do.
BASKIN: In the past, if an older power plant or oil refinery made upgrades to its facility that exceeded, "routine maintenance," it also would have to add new equipment to control pollution. The utility industry lobbied hard to relax this costly requirement…and quietly got its way this summer.
WHITMAN: The biggest issue and what the acting administrator has moved on is a definition of routine maintenance repair and replacement. It means if the utility's fan breaks down and they replace it, does that trigger a whole new set of environmental questions that paperwork they have to fill out...
BASKIN: Just a few weeks ago, the EPA issued its new interpretation of the Clean Air Act. Now some utilities can literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars on upgraded equipment and call it routine maintenance. Simply changing the language means they can avoid adding tougher pollution controls.
For instance, it means that the coal-fired power plant President Bush visited earlier this week would be allowed to increase the amount of pollutants it currently releases by 36,000 tons a year.
BUSH [FROM TAPE]: "We simplified the rules. We made them easy to understand. We trust the people in this plant to make the right decisions."
ROBERTA BASKIN: It's a controversial decision, and now Whitman's former allies from her days as governor of New Jersey, state officials across the Northeast, say they'll sue to block the rule change.
New York's Attorney General predicts the rollback will bring, quote, "more acid rain, more smog, more asthma and more respiratory disease to millions of Americans."
BASKIN [ADDRESSING SCHAEFFER]: And why should the public be concerned whether those rules are enforced or not?
SCHAEFFER: Twenty thousand premature deaths a year. I'd say that's a reason to be concerned. Air pollution is invisible for the most part. Sometimes you'll see the smoke. But a lot of time it's what you can't see that hurts you the most.
BASKIN: How can it be good for the environment to let coal-burning power plants when they do upgrades to their facilities not add needed pollution controls? That was the point to this New Source Review.
WHITMAN: There's still a standard. Every plant has a limit of how much they can emit. That doesn't go away.
BASKIN: But one federal court has just decided the EPA isn't even upholding its own standards. A recent ruling found that the utility, Ohio Edison, tried to pass off extensive renovations as "routine maintenance" without putting in the necessary pollution controls. Judge Edmund Sargus scolded both the power company and Whitman's EPA, quote, "given the enormous cost of retrofitting, this strategy should not be unexpected. What should be unexpected and condemned, however, is an agency unwilling to enforce a clear statutory mandate set forth in an act of Congress."
BASKIN: It's such an odd contradiction, though, because you have a federal judge that just recently ruled in favor of the New Source Review saying that the rule is clear. And now the EPA, under rolling it back or redefining it's going to be a contradiction for the agency, isn't it?
WHITMAN: Well, the real thing, the real way to get change... New Source Review was never designed to be the tool to reduce emissions. It was to stop increases.
BASKIN: But Whitman's critics say little was done to stop increases. During her tenure the EPA didn't bring a single lawsuit against a utility company.
SCHAEFFER: We felt the shadow of the White House on almost everything we did in a way that I've never seen before.
BASKIN: Which brings us back to the current controversy over the EPA's actions and statements in the days following 9/11, and the Inspector General's findings.
BASKIN: Let's look at the recent Inspector General's report from the EPA on September 11th which found that the EPA gave false assurances to New Yorkers.
WHITMAN: No, it didn't. And that's the thing that really upsets me the most. If you look at that report, what it says, the criticism they have is they say, "We didn't have all the scientific information to be as comprehensive as we were in statements. But we were right." Oh, by the way, nothing and they say it in the report nothing in that report contradicts what we said.
BASKIN: Actually, what the Inspector General said was: "A definitive answer to whether the air was safe to breathe may not be settled for years to come."
BASKIN: What the report said is that when the EPA made a September 18th announcement that the air was, quote, "safe to breathe," the agency did not have sufficient data and analysis to make that statement.
WHITMAN: That's in their opinion. Our scientists thought they did.
But others reading the IG's report, like New York Senator Hillary Clinton suspect there's another explanation.
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON [PRESS CONFERENCE, AUGUST 26, 2003]: I know a little bit about how White Houses work, I know somebody picked up a phone, somebody got on a computer, somebody sent an e-mail, somebody called for a meeting, somebody in that White House, probably under instructions from somebody further up the chain told the EPA, "Don't tell the people of New York the truth."
WHITMAN: She is absolutely wrong. And she is...
BASKIN: Nobody made a call from the White House?
WHITMAN: ...the quality. She is misjudging the quality of the professional men and women of the Environmental Protection Agency. If she thinks for a minute they would sit by and allow politicians to misinform and put the people of New York and put people's lives in danger and not say something?
BASKIN: But there's a disturbing pattern that emerges from the Inspector General's investigation. Just as it had done with Whitman's report card on the environment, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, quote, "...convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
BASKIN: This week at a Washington press conference, some EPA scientists said their own agency had failed to warn New Yorkers of the serious health risks from 9/11.
HIRZY: Our credibility is damaged, it's a terrible blow to our morale and frankly the public is not getting its full value from us.
But regardless of the calls for further investigation,
Whitman still maintains there was nothing inappropriate about the White House's influence over the EPA during her tenure, including the days after September 11th.
WHITMAN: You have to coordinate all those things so that people knew what to do with the data they were getting. That's the only place where the White House stepped in. Again, CEQ saying, "Look, we gotta try to figure out a way to give this information to the public in a useable fashion.
BASKIN: Did somebody from the White House call you at the Environmental Protection Agency and say, "Take it down a notch."
WHITMAN: No. We had calls from CEQ, the Council on Environmental Quality, within the White House, on some of the press releases and language. And how we were gonna say things. But nobody said, "Take it down a notch."
BASKIN: What did you learn as EPA administrator that you get a call from the next one that you would say, "Here's what you need to know?"
WHITMAN: Well, first, you need to know that you've got very good staff. You've got very bright people, very dedicated to the issues. And to have a thick skin. Thicker even than you had as a governor because it's brutal here.