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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lessons from 9/11

Air Date: Week of September 5, 2003

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Heather Dubin was teaching in a high school next door to the World Trade Center on September 11th. The school reopened six months later. Dubin comments on the safety of that decision, given recent reports that the EPA misled the public about the quality of the air in lower Manhattan.

Transcript

CURWOOD: A few weeks ago, the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the Bush administration had "convinced the agency to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" in its press releases about air quality in lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. Heather Dubin, who taught school at Ground Zero, doesn’t know what to believe now.

DUBIN: Recent findings that the EPA wasn’t exactly honest about the air quality at Ground Zero don’t surprise me. Two years ago, I was one of thousands running down the street on that horrible morning with a building chasing me. The public high school where I taught, Economics and Finance, at 100 Trinity Place, is a hundred feet from the World Trade. We were displaced for six months, but with pressure from the city to prove New York was still New York, the Board of Ed sent us back.

The school staff was divided over our return. Some teachers readily accepted promises that the air quality was safe. I was opposed to going back without assurance against long-term health risks. It seemed like common sense to me, but I was perceived as some kind of radical instigator.

The Board of Ed hired contractors to clean the building and fix the air filtration. But a walk-through revealed the job wasn't stellar. Soot was in the elevator shaft, dust was on several floors, and asbestos was found above the ceilings.

The kids were upset that the Board of Ed was less than candid. As minorities, racism is part of their everyday lives. But that didn’t prepare them for how carelessly they were being treated. The evidence was all around them every time they took a breath. When one student said, "I don't want to get cancer,” her somber tone brought quiet to the classroom. I could see in their faces a combination of fear and expectation. My role as a teacher had been to earn their trust and to help them figure out the answers. What was I supposed to tell them? I couldn't lie.

The area was filthy. The building covered in scaffolding. You could taste the heavy layer of dust. We were within yards of where WTC workers were coming down with respiratory problems. Streets were ripped open while workers re-wired. After school, some of the kids would wait outside for their friends. They'd stand across the street, breathing in dust. We’d tell them to get out of there, to go home.

I developed a sore throat and cough – as did co-workers and students, along with thousands of others who lived and worked in the area. The kids with asthma were our biggest worry. Eventually, we got used to it. Used to the air. Used to the dirt. Used to the Deutshe building swathed in black drapery. But can we get used to lies? Sometimes it’s vindicating to be right. Not this time. I feel jaded. Now I know what it’s like to be invisible, something my students understand all too well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the responsibility of their trust. No one had answers. We could only hope the government was telling the truth. Turns out, they weren’t. Now, It seems the only thing we can rely on is the expectation of disappointment.

CURWOOD: Heather Dubin teaches high school in New York City, and lives in Manhattan.

 

 

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