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NYC concerned about lawsuits after release of post-9/11 memos about toxic air at ground zero

One World Trade Center is framed by trees near the South Reflecting pool as people visit the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero on Sept. 3, 2021, in New York. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

New York City will release a treasure trove of memos about what the city knew about the toxic air at the World Trade Center site — only if federal lawmakers can help protect the city from lawsuits after the documents are made public, the Daily News has learned.

City attorneys met with staffers for Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., earlier this month, at the invitation of Mayor Eric Adams, to talk about releasing the secret 9/11-related documents that have been under lock and key since planes destroyed the twin towers, congressional sources said.

The municipal attorneys said they might release the undisclosed material, but only if the lawmakers met three eyebrow-raising demands: Let the city keep $300 million remaining in a federally funded litigation account, fund a new lawsuit protection plan, and pass a federal law shielding the city from any further responsibility, the sources said.

The mayor’s office confirmed the broad outlines of what was said at the meeting, and that the city is concerned it could face liability.

Neither Nadler nor Maloney were willing to discuss what occurred behind closed doors.

But Maloney repeated her argument for pulling back the veil of secrecy surrounding the horror, heroism, and still-hidden failings that unfolded around the terrorism that reshaped New York and the nation.

“It has been almost 21 years since these attacks, and people deserve the truth about what the city knew in the aftermath,” Maloney said. “I hope that Mayor Adams, a 9/11 responder himself, will overrule his lawyers and let this critical information come to light for all that have been affected since that tragic day.”

Some 2,753 people, including first responders and downtown workers, died on Sept. 11, 2001, with thousands more getting sick and dying — a sobering reminder that the toxic dust that clouded the air and filled the survivors’ lungs is still wreaking havoc.

More than 112,00 people are enrolled in the federally-run World Trade Center Health Program. Tens of thousands have been diagnosed with various cancers, and respiratory disorders like asthma, COPD and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to Andrew Carboy, a private attorney as well as other lawyers involved with Sept. 11 litigation, the city never turned over paperwork in what’s known as a privilege log that details all the items a defendant believes are exempt from disclosure.

Carboy claims the city would not turn over detailed plans drawn up — and never carried out — to prepare the Fire Department to respond to a skyscraper collapse with respirator masks. He also remembers a news report about a memo that was not disclosed. It warned of 10,000 New Yorkers getting ill from exposure.

“It causes people who follow the issue to start speculating, ‘Oh my gosh, what terrible thing are they hiding?’” said Carboy, who has represented thousands of people in the aftermath of 9/11.

What Carboy found especially odd is that New York City should already be protected from most liability.

First, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani got an amendment to one of the rescue measures passed by Congress at the time to cap the city’s liability at $350 million. That law remains in effect. Second, Congress created what’s known as a captive insurance fund to protect contractors and the city, and funded it with $1 billion. It still holds the $300 million the city lawyers want to keep. Third, Congress created the Victim Compensation Fund, fully funded through 2090. It guarantees substantial payouts for people harmed by 9/11, as long as they don’t sue.

The mayor’s office contended a new liability shield only makes sense. It would both protect the $300 million left from the Feds, and eliminate the already reduced threat under the $350 million cap on damages.

“From my view, the city is protected. Their liability is capped,” said Carboy. “What are they worried about?”

One source familiar with the meeting said the city lawyers admitted they’ve only faced a handful of cases since all of that federal legislation was passed.

Carboy could imagine Adams, who was an NYPD lieutenant at the time of the attacks and worked at ground zero, taking a closer look at the situation and overruling the bureaucrats.

“Rather than come clean, you have a mayor who was a first responder, who served at that site, and you’re denying that mayor — who’s here for four years, eight years at the most — you’re denying him and these other New Yorkers who served the real story about what happened,” Carboy said.


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