September 11 was a tragedy that has changed the course of history and the way we live. It was also an environmental disaster of epic proportions. Hundreds of tons of asbestos were pulverized and dispersed around Lower Manhattan and beyond. The tens of thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs each contained enough mercury to contaminate a quarter of a city block. The Trade Center’s 50,000 computers were each made with four to twelve pounds of lead. The smoke detectors contained radioactive americium 241. The alkalinity of the air was equivalent to that of Draino. A month after the disaster, Dr. Thomas Cahill of the University of California at Davis found levels of very-fine and ultra-fine particulates that were the highest he’d ever recorded in the course of taking 7000 samples around the world, including at the burning Kuwaiti oil fields.1 In addition there were record levels of dioxin, PCBs, and all the other contaminants one might expect to find when a modern city – which is what the World Trade Center was – burns for several months. In the words of Dr. Marjorie Clarke, 9/11 was “equivalent to dozens of asbestos factories, incinerators and crematoria – as well as a volcano.” 2
Nevertheless, beginning on September 13, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued reassurances about the air quality downtown.
A report by the EPA Inspector General released in August, 2003, found that these pronouncements came about because of interference from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ.) “[B]ased on CEQ’s influence reassuring information was added to at least one press release and cautionary information was deleted;” Why was the CEQ interfering in this way? The report states: “[T]he desire to reopen Wall Street [was] considered when preparing EPA’s early press releases.” 3
As a result of EPA’s reassuring lies, Lower Manhattan reopened with much fanfare about ‘showing the terrorists.’ Often, Ground Zero workers were told not to wear respirators for fear of frightening the public. Residents removed tons of toxic debris from their homes (some of which looked like Pompeii) in accord with instructions provided by the New York City Department of Health: “Use a wet mop or wet rag.”4 On October 9, Stuyvesant High School, where this writer’s son was a student, reopened. Flanked by Ground Zero four blocks to the south, Stuyvesant also had on its north doorstep the main transfer station for the toxic debris to be carted off to Fresh Kills, Staten Island.
As a result of this placement, Particulate Matter 2.5 – dust that is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and not come out again – was often higher at Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero. Because it is so small, P.M. 2.5 has a relatively large surface area to volume ratio which means that the toxic chemicals in the debris would adsorb (i.e., be absorbed onto its surface) onto the particles, compounding their toxicity. High levels of asbestos, lead, tetrachloroethane and isocyanates were found at the school which had been used as a triage center but whose ventilation system had not been cleaned prior to the school’s reopening.
Did Bush himself know about the air quality downtown? If he didn’t, it was because he operated on a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy so that the buck would stop short of him. The fact is: Scientists and other experts testified early and often on the dangers of the air downtown and the toxic dust in people’s homes. Yet to date all the federal government has provided is testing with outdated equipment and sometimes untried protocols; a dangerously flawed and limited cleanup and little or no health care for the affected community.
The Commission Report deals with the envirodisaster of 9/11 in a footnote in which they refer to an interview with Sam Thernstrom, coordinator for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He denies changing press releases in order to reopen Wall Street, explaining that the reasons for the changes were procedural. His story is corroborated by Christy Todd Whitman who told the initial lies.
John Gotti and Lucky Luciano have got their stories straight. But as Uncle Remus said, “You can hide the fire but how you gonna hide the smoke?”
Three years later we are beginning to see the results of the disastrous policies of the White House which put economic concerns ahead of public health. Over half of the heroes who toiled at Ground Zero now have debilitating respiratory symptoms. Among residents, workers, and the Stuyvesant community are many illnesses such as new-onset asthma, Reactive Airways Disease, and chronic bronchitis. Lawyer Robert Gulack, for instance, has suffered permanent lung damage from his exposure to contamination in the Woolworth building. And as a dreadful portent of what may be in store for the community of Ground Zero, fourteen rescue dogs have died.
The White House’s actions in response to the environmental aftermath of 9/11 reveal that Osama Bin Laden could not have stumbled on a more felicitous collaborator than George W. Bush.
JENNA ORKIN is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a potential class action lawsuit against the EPA. She is a member of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization and can be reached at: Jennakilt@aol.com