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BY JACKSON CHEN
Jenna Orkin was living in Brooklyn on 9/11, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into a smoldering pile of rubble and a cloud of toxic dust that enveloped Lower Manhattan. But her son was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero, as a student at Stuyvesant High School.
Not long afterwards, with the Environmental Protection Agency and city officials denying that there was any health risk from the ubiquitous dust that permeated Downtown, the Department of Education decided to resume classes at the elite high school just a month later — while the rubble of Ground Zero still smoldered.
Orkin didn’t believe the reassurances, but she struggled in the face of government denials and misinformation to convince her son that it was dangerous to be so close to Ground Zero.
She was eventually proved right — with government statistics now confirming that exposure to the dust killed at least 322 Ground Zero recovery workers and sickened more than 17,439 others with respiratory issues or cancer — and even the DOE eventually acknowledged the dangers, having found lead dust levels that exceeded federal and local standards in three Stuyvesant classrooms five months after the city returned students to the school. But at the time, Orkin said, the EPA repeatedly lied about the dangers of being Downtown. And making matters worse, many media outlets credulously reported the EPA’s misinformation as fact, and “grossly misled” the public.
Orkin and a small but growing cadre of allies battled relentlessly to make people see the ugly truth.
“We had to fight the EPA to clean up Lower Manhattan and they lied about the air quality,” Orkin said. “It was a constant fight.”
Her activism took her through hours upon hours of congressional hearings, press conferences, and meetings where she and other environmental activists aiming to educate each other and the public with the evidence of the hazards.
Orkin chronicles her fight in “Ground Zero Wars: The Fight to Reveal the Lies of the EPA in the Wake of 9/11 and Clean Up Lower Manhattan.” In her book, Orkin recounts the very personal story of how she and other local activists had to fight the government to uncover the actual dangers of living and working around Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
After a decade, the public can clearly see the impact on the recovery workers and neighbors, but Orkin said scientists had long been warning of the “extraordinary” levels of contaminants at Ground Zero, but their voices were initially drowned out by a concerted campaign of government disinformation, which she thinks is a lesson to remember in an era of fake news and false narratives.
“There’s a bigger underlying message. This is only one tragedy, but it’s emblematic of the general modus operandi of the government,” Orkin said. “You have to do your own research and have to be on site yourself. You’ll never get the real picture otherwise.”