Friday, September 17, 2004

For Me, It's Personal

There are many reasons to vote for John Kerry on November 2. The expansive list of causes includes his clearer vision on the following issues: foreign policy, the battle to stave off the spread of radical jihadism, the economy, Supreme Court appointees, all federal judicial appointees, tax policy, the environment, worker safety, union empowerment, separation of church and state, and the list goes on as far as the eye can see. The good news is, more Americans seem to be catching on as evidenced by the latest polls. As I have argued here and here, too much is made of polls anyway, and the polls themselves do not accurately convey the real strength of Kerry's support because turnout from traditionally apathetic voting blocs will reach unprecedented highs this election (and they don't necessarily show up in polls). Nevertheless, good news is good news.

I wanted to discuss an issue that for me is of great importance, but has not received the national attention it deserves because of the obvious magnitude of some of the other events that are prominent in the thoughts of many voters (the foreign policy debacle in Iraq and the dismal economy being the most germane). Below is an excerpt from
an article which details a nasty little side story to the 9/11 tragedy, and one that makes Karl Rove's selection of New York City as the site for the Republican National Convention that much more insidious.

IN THE WAKE of 9/11, there were serious concerns about whether the air around Ground Zero was filled with toxins - unsafe for workers and residents.

But by Sept. 18, 2001, many New Yorkers were back in their apartments and on the job. Partly because of a press release that day from the Environmental Protection Agency reassuring New Yorkers that "their air is safe to breathe."

Was that press release misleading? According to Nikki Tinsley, "It was surely not telling all of the truth."

In an exclusive interview, Inspector General Tinsley, the EPA's top watchdog, tells NBC News the agency simply did not have sufficient data to justify such a reassurance.

In fact, a new report by Tinsley's office says, at the time, more than 25 percent of dust samples collected before Sept. 18 showed unsafe levels of asbestos. And the EPA had no test results at all on PCBs, dioxins or particulates in the air that can cause respiratory problems.

Tinsley said, "The EPA did not give the people of New York complete information. It had put together press releases that were more informative than those that it ultimately released."


So what happened? Tinsley's report charges, in the crucial days after 9/11, the White House changed EPA press releases to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

Sept. 13: The EPA draft release - never released to the public - said: EPA "testing terrorized sites for environmental hazards." The White House changed that to EPA "reassures public about environmental hazards."

Sept. 16: The EPA draft said: "Recent samples of dust ... on Water Street show higher levels of asbestos." The White House version: "New samples confirm ... ambient air quality meets OSHA [government] standards" ... and "is not a cause for public concern."

And the White House left out entirely the warning "that air samples raise concerns for cleanup workers and office workers near Water St."

Why all these changes? Tinsley said, "We were told that a desire to reopen Wall Street and national security concerns were the reasons for changing the press releases."
I do not mean to sound shrill, but this was an act of callous disregard for the lives of so many New Yorkers, this one included, and with this knowledge in mind, and the recent empirical evidence detailing the problem, last month's convention seemed like a cruel taunt. Understand that landlords and employers relied on those EPA reports to resume charging rent and requiring the presence of their employees. I remember contentious conversations with the representatives of my landlord, who tut-tutted my concerns over the safety of the air quality with the condescending assurance that the EPA said it was safe, and the government wouldn't lie. As if. Thus after only a two week reprieve, they began charging rent again. Furthermore, they insisted on waiting for the EPA to send clean up crews to rid the apartment of the inches-thick layers of dust covering every surface, nook and crevice. I had the foresight to hire private cleaners, which was well worth the money spent since the EPA didn't show up for weeks.

I was also fortunate enough to get out of the City on Thursday the 13th, making my way north to a friend's place in Connecticut, but my employer did not see any reason to extend the suspension of work past the weekend. Quite the contrary, they were intent on maintaining the progress on some deals we were working on, and since the EPA said it was safe, then why not come back to work. Why worry?

Though I am no scientist, even I could have told you that the air was not safe. The pervasively potent, acrid, chemicalized odor was unlike anything I have ever smelled before or since, an indicator of the vile carcinogens present in the air. The smell could be detected as far north as the Bronx and East in Brooklyn and Queens. The whole city was engulfed.

After a couple of weeks when the smell of the decaying victims began to co-mingle with the other smells, it became almost unbearable, and not just because of the psychological torture of realizing that five friends I had known since high school were buried in the rubble. One subway conductor literally fainted, overwhelmed by the odors, in Fulton St. station which was my stop (literally across the street from Ground Zero). In a warped sense, I was relieved when the chemical smell reclaimed its dominance over my olfactory senses.

Thinking of that period is painful enough, on many levels, without the knowledge that I, and my family and friends, will likely face some medical repercussions down the road because of political decisions made by a man who never had to sacrifice a thing in his life. Maybe we had to get Wall St. up and running in order to stabilize our nation, but don't the citizens have the right to make those decisions for themselves? Should the administration have given such cover to landlords and employers eager to see their operations resume?

And I don't mean to make this all about me and those closest to me. An even greater crime was perpetrated against the heroic and well meaning rescue workers, as the evidence is beginning to confirm:
Nearly half of more than 1,000 screened rescue and recovery workers and volunteers who responded to the World Trade Center attacks have new and persistent respiratory problems, and more than half have persistent psychological symptoms, according to preliminary data from a medical screening program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered by the Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City.
So for me, this November is not just about abstract policy or leadership qualities, and it sure as hell isn't about who I would rather have a beer with (though I don't think I could contain my anger with Bush if I had a couple in me). It's not only business, it's also very personal.

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