"No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts wrote, calling Whitman's actions "conscience-shocking."
Whitman spokeswoman Heather Grizzle said Thursday that the former New Jersey governor had no comment. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government had no comment either. EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears said the EPA was reviewing the lengthy opinion.
Batts refused to grant Whitman immunity against a class-action lawsuit brought in 2004 by residents, students and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous dust and debris after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.
The judge let the civil lawsuit proceed against the EPA and Whitman, permitting residents, students and workers to try to prove that the agency and its administrator endangered their health by their actions and statements soon after the attack.
The lawsuit sought unspecified damages and reimbursement for cleanup costs and asked the court to order a medical monitoring fund be set up to track the health of those exposed to trade center dust.
In an 83-page decision, Batts noted that the EPA and Whitman said shortly after the attack brought down the 110-story twin towers that the air in and around the area was safe to breathe.
In a Sept. 13, 2001, press release, the EPA said the air around the disaster site was relatively safe and that short-term, low-level exposure of the kind produced there "is unlikely to cause significant health effects."
The judge noted that Whitman in the same press release said her agency was "greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City."