Ex-EPA chief Christie Whitman denounced as "downright falsehoods" the criticism of her assurances that it was safe to breathe the air around the fallen World Trade Center.

"There are people to blame. They are the terrorists that attacked the United States, not the men and women of all levels of government," Whitman said Monday at a hearing where she faced some of her toughest congressional critics.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes the World Trade Center site, called the hearing after years of criticizing federal officials for what he says was a negligent and incomplete cleanup after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He opened the session by saying the Bush administration "has continued to make false, misleading and inaccurate statements, and refused to take remedial actions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence."

Whitman, the main focus of much of that criticism, called such allegations "misinformation, innuendo and downright falsehoods."

She has insisted for years that her statements that the "air is safe" were aimed at those living and working near ground zero, not those who actually toiled on the toxic pile. Her agency, she has said, repeatedly warned that rescue and recovery workers needed to wear protective gear.

A delegation of activists and Sept. 11 rescue workers boarded a bus in Manhattan early Monday to be present for the hearing, which delved into the work of the Environmental Protection Agency when Whitman was in charge.

"People are still outraged," said community activist Kimberly Flynn. "This is our chance to see Christie Todd Whitman and EPA be held accountable for denying the dangers and the dust and the smoke that has damaged so many people's health. We are stunned that she's sticking to her story."

Since the attacks, independent government reviews have faulted the EPA's handling of the immediate aftermath and the agency's long-term cleanup program for nearby buildings.

A study of more than 20,000 people by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York concluded that since the attacks, 70 percent of ground zero workers have suffered some sort of respiratory illness.

A separate medical study released last month found that rescue workers and firefighters contracted sarcoidosis, a serious lung-scarring disease, at a rate more than five times as high as in the years before the attacks.