May 22, 2005


The 9/11 Environmental Disaster

Yes, Bill Moyers and Then Some

by Jenna Orkin

Those of us who have been struggling for the last three and a half years to publicize the environmental disaster of 9/11 can attest to the truth of Bill Moyers' speech to the National Conference for Media Reform: The mainstream media often take the party line for gospel at the expense of the truth. 

The trouble in our case is the vicelike hold that government agencies have over official hearings. At almost every hearing on the environmental disaster of 9/11, whether local, state or federal, government agencies have testified first. Their 'turn' has lasted until noon at which point the press have rushed out to edit their stories. 

The rest of us, whether independent scientists, experts or unwashed masses, have testified after lunch which, no coincidence, is also after most of the press have left. So have most of the electeds. Often we've been reduced to delivering impassioned speeches to a lone City Council member or Assemblyperson who has nodded sympathetically in between taking calls on his cellphone. 

One of the few exceptions to this disheartening picture was the EPA Ombudsman's hearing which made a point of having scientists such as Dr. Thomas Cahill of the University of California, then considered a maverick, testify first. The EPA Administrator at the time, Christy Todd Whitman, soon pulled the Ombudsman's authority out from under him which effectively did away with the office. (Ombudsman Robert Martin resigned in protest, as Whitman had known he would.) 

From the getgo in the environmental disaster of 9/11 Dr. Marjorie Clarke of Hunter College testified that the air was "equivalent to dozens of asbestos factories, incinerators and crematoria - as well as a volcano." And Paul Bartlett of the Queens Center for the Biology of Natural Systems warned city, state and federal officials of the way these contaminants would disperse and of the particular dangers of inside air. Apartments are dust collectors, he pointed out. The rain won't wash and the wind won't blow away the toxic contaminants. 

But unlike the government accounts - "Nothing to worry about; we're doing a great job" - these truthful depictions, which were critical for residents to know in order to protect themselves and their families, didn't make it into the press. 

A hearing without the press or most of the electeds is like a tree falling in the forest: It doesn't make any sound or if it does, so what?

We the people objected to the way the hearings were organized. 

"But," we were told, "the agency reps said if we don't let them go first, they won't testify at all." 

I've never fully understood what would be so bad about that. 

Some members of the press have argued that it would be 'irresponsible' to report what nongovernment witnesses have testified. But the environmental disaster of 9/11 is an eloquent if catastrophic example of why the opposite is true. It's irresponsible to report only one side of a story, particularly when the other side is so powerfully supported.

Jenna Orkin has written articles for Counterpunch and other websites on the environmental disaster of 9/11 as well as other subjects. She is an activist, currently as Spokesperson for the World Trade Center Environmental Organization.