Jenna Orkin

“Please don’t go to school tomorrow,” I plead with Alex* [*some identifying details have been changed] on Columbus Day, the day before the return to the Stuyvesant building. We are having the first of many such role-reversing conversations.
Alex shrugs. Sure, what the hell. Skip school and not get flak for it? Paydirt.
The morning of October 9, according to the news reports that broadcast later that day, is an excited one. The much touted “return to normalcy” [sic] is on. Blow the trumpets.
A week before, Borough of Manhattan Community College had reopened across the street without a murmur from the press. This contrast with the attention lavished on Stuy will be the source of some distrust between the two schools before they join forces against the mightier enemies confronting both of them.
In fact I would prefer it if Alex were at BMCC. At least their filtration system is 80% effective. Stuy’s is only 10% effective during the worst months of the environmental disaster of 9/11, while the fires burn.
The focus of the press on Stuy is a way of using the kids as mascots, the sooner to reopen Wall Street. (This suspicion will be confirmed by a report by the EPA Inspector General in August, 2003.) Osama Bin Laden and Bush are united in at least one thing: their attitude towards New York. Osama hates it for symbolic and religious reasons: (money and Jews). W. is indifferent at best, for political reasons: (We didn’t vote for him.)
The media, those lean and hungry watchdogs, drugged by EPA’s lies to be lapdogs, eat out of the government’s hand, interviewing the intrepid highschoolers, symbols of New York’s renewal.
The public buys the sugarcoated poison. As one parent puts it, “I don’t think they’d let the kids back in if it was unhealthy.”
As a gesture of good faith or PR, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy sets up a temporary bivouac office at Stuyvesant saying, “Now if I didn’t think it was safe, do you think I’d be here myself?”
Freshwoman Ellen S. tells Levy she has doubts about the air quality.
“If you leave the school,” says Levy, “you can’t come back.”
Four days later Levy himself leaves. In February Ellen will get headaches which she will attribute to the need for new glasses. She will be found to have an excess of fluid buildup in her brain and over the course of several months, will require two spinal taps. At least one doctor familiar with the case will think it may be related to the high lead levels which will have been found at the school.

For the next three months, adolescent rebellion takes an unusual turn as each morning Alex and I have the following conversation:
Me (begging): Please don’t go to school.
Alex: I will go to school.
Especially when an extracurricular coach has a talk with him that is half threat, half wink and nod. (“My doctor doesn’t think I should be in the building either,” the coach says, “but I’m here. And my sister also saw a news report in California about the air downtown and told me not to go back.”
This does not seem to me a persuasive argument for the coach to be threatening or pseudo-seducing the kids to practise.)
But if Alex hasn’t done his homework I am in luck.
This unholy mother-son alliance which I keep from [my exhusband] Kevin until Alex finally leaves Stuyvesant, causes some headshaking among my shrink friends.
But it isn’t just Ground Zero that is the problem. Stuyvesant also has the World Trade Center site on its north doorstep. In violation of state law as well as federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act laws, the Office of Emergency Management has deemed Stuyvesant’s “backyard” an appropriate place for the barge where all the WTC debris is brought before being hauled to its final resting place in Staten Island.
As a result of this placement, levels of Particulate Matter 2.5, - fine dust which can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and alveoli and not come out again - is often higher at Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero. Also, because of its small size, it has a relatively large surface area to volume ratio which means that the toxic chemicals in the debris adsorb onto its surface.
On various occasions elevated levels of asbestos, lead, tetrachloroethane and isocyanates are also found at the school. Finally, we also learn after moving back that contrary to what the Parents' Association had originally been told, the school's ventilation system had not been cleaned prior to the building's reopening.

With the barge parked on our doorstep comes an entourage of diesel vehicles: a crane and trucks that make hundreds of trips per day.
I make my own maiden voyage onto the Internet to resesarch diesel and send the results to a growing email list:

Diesel has 40 toxic air contaminants, ranging in alphabetical order from acetaldehyde to xylene isomers (California Air Resources Board; American Lung Association of Pennsylvania.)
Toluene, lead, cadmium and mercury lead to birth defects.
Benzene leads to cancer and disorders of the blood and blood forming tissues.
Dioxins are toxic to the immune and reproductive systems. (NRDC).
Formaldeyde causes asthma.
Sulfur dioxide causes permanent pulmonary impairement.
The EPA says diesel exhaust is ‘highly likely’ to be carcinogenic. The South Coast Air Quality Management District says that diesel accounts for 71% of total cancer risk associated with air pollution. (Http://
Diesel contains sixteen carcinogens.
A lawyer’s website says that the synergistic effect of chemicals on hormones could be 1600 times their original effect.
Among the non-carcinogenic effects of diesel is “mortality.” (Http://

The playing fields of Stuyvesant have become a toxic dump.

“It’s just temporary,” the responsible government agencies assure parents and residents who have their own complaints: The cleanup operation goes on 24/7 with sleep-destroying noise and lights.
“Everyone has to make sacrifices,” says Giuliani grimly, his sleeves rolled up in sacrifice. He does not spell out what those sacrifices might entail for developing kids.
But the word of the day is ‘emergency.’ In its name, environmental laws are thrown to the four toxic-laden winds. Anything goes, especially when you have the whole world cheering you on, as Mr. Giuliani, soon to be knighted and annointed Man of the Year, does. The powers that be behave as though the laws of nature have been suspended for the duration of the cleanup.
I call an influential politician's office to ask if the barge can be moved.
“That’s a local problem,” says the politician’s environmental aide.
The country gets attacked but the fallout is a local problem.

(When the Parents’ Association reports to parents on the effects of diesel, Deputy School Chancellor Klasfeld responds, “I can only conclude, from the report’s use of sensationalistic language, [e.g. “Diesel fumes are carcinogenic”] that the intent of this report is not to provide parents with useful information but rather, to cause further stress and divisiveness to the Stuyvesant community and to damage the school’s missions for educational excellence.... nor does the report present any evidence or exposure data to support these specious claims.” February 7, 2002 )

Schools Chancellor Levy is addressing a breakfast forum at New York Law School.
He speaks of the ‘challenge’ facing him. “Challenge” is the word of the decade. Physically challenged. Mentally challenged. The New York Times' post-September 11 section is called “A Nation Challenged.” When Ground Zero workers are given a test for respiratory symptoms called the 'methacholine challenge,' it seems a tipoff that the test is especially nasty.
Levy praises the heroism of the teachers at the elementary schools of Ground Zero - P.S. 150, 234 and 89 - some of whom are no older than twenty-five themselves. (It was a P.S. 234 child who said on September 11, “Teacher, the birds are on fire.” The child was pointing to the people falling out of windows.)
“I asked them how they kept the children from getting hysterical,” Levy says.
‘One teacher replied, ‘I told them, ‘More walking, less talking.’”
Question time. Stuydad Richard Roth asks, “What are you going to do about the barge at Stuyvesant?”
“It’s not dangerous unless the kids are standing next to it,” Levy replies. “The debris is being watered down.”
“We know,” I interject. “They had a firedrill, the kids were next to it. My son got watered down too.”
The audience titters uneasily.
Stuymom Sarah T.* takes a conciliatory approach.
“Chancellor Levy, I was impressed by your quotation that a society must be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Our children are its weakest members and right now, we need the Board of Education to protect them.”
“This isn’t fair,” Levy says.
After breakfast Sarah apologizes to Levy for offending him. He doesn’t acknowledge her but parts the milling crowd wearing a slick, rictus smile, like a shark through the waters.

The wetting down of the debris is an intermittent affair at best. At worst, during the winter, the debris isn’t wetted down at all for fear that the water will freeze.

“Certain requirements for transporting debris from the site were suspended by the Governor of New York in an Executive Order dated October 9, 2001. [The day Stuyvesant reopened.] This order temporarily suspended regulations regarding the transportation and handling of certain solid waste resulting from the WTC disaster. The order applied to persons working at the site under the supervision of New York State or the New York City government officials and suspended requirements to:
- obtain permits for collection, transportation and delivery of regulated waste...
- Comply with hazardous waste management standards... “(Report of the EPA Office of the Inspector General No. 2003-P-00012. p. 37)

In a final irony, with the barge at the door, the school can no longer use its north entrance. If there’s another disaster the students will have to go south to the site of the former World Trade Center.