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How Science Was Abused to Perpetrate Lies After 9/11:
A Cautionary Tale for the Approaching Peak Oil Disaster


November 11, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the text for the talks that Jenna Orkin delivered to the Lifting the Fog Conference held in Berkeley CA on 11/11/2006.

September 11 was, among other things, a Big Bang that signaled the birth of a new universe. As this universe unfolds, we're learning that it operates under laws which are antithetical to the ideals we grew up with. Human life is no longer sacred. Democratic ideals are not upheld; nor are any other ideals, certainly not those of health or compassion. The new universe upholds pragmatism above all else, even to the point of cynicism. For what is at stake now, given the arrival of Peak Oil and the depletion of water and other resources, is survival. Towards that end, the powers that be will tolerate all means necessary.

Whose survival? Not America's, much less the world's, but their own.

This new attitude of blatant indifference to human health, suffering and life itself first manifested itself in the environmental disaster of 9/11 which began when the twin towers and the other five buildings at Ground Zero collapsed and the fires ignited by the two planes burned and smoldered for three months releasing record levels of some of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances that flesh is heir to.

The World Trade Center was a city with its own zipcode. When it fell, hundreds of tons of asbestos were pulverized to particles of an unusually small size - which some scientists believe are especially dangerous to human health - and carried to Brooklyn and beyond. The towers also contained 50,000 computers each made with approximately four pounds of lead and that doesn't include the five other buildings that were destroyed. Tens of thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs each contained 41 mg. mercury per four foot bulb. Dioxin reached record levels. The smoke detectors contained radioactive americium 241. PCBs in the water attained 75,000 times their previous record. The alkalinity of the dust reached the level of draincleaner. A month after the disaster, Dr. Thomas Cahill of U.C. Davis found very- and ultrafine particles that were the highest he'd recorded of 7000 samples taken around the world, including at the burning Kuwaiti oil fields.

Yet a week later, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman told the people of New York, "Good news. The air is safe to breathe." I should disclose that I am one of twelve original plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Governor Whitman and EPA.

Whitman's announcement, she has maintained ever since, was based on the best science available at the time. Also ever since, science has been used in the service of lies and the economy at the expense of human life.

How is this possible? Science is objective. Instruments and facts don't lie.

It depends on who's using the instruments and what ax they're grinding. It depends on what facts are told and more pointedly, what facts are left out.

This is not the conference in which to discuss the fact that when Whitman told the people of New York the air was safe to breathe, not only did EPA lack the data to support that statement but EPA actually had data which contradicted it. Nor is this the conference to go into Whitman's potentially felonious conflict of interest in speaking about the World Trade Center at all when she owned shares of Port Authority stock and had sworn in her oath of office to recuse herself from cases in which she had a personal stake.

This is a conference about science so we will look at how science was used to promote the lies perpetrated by the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality which edited at least one of EPA's press releases, replacing cautionary statements about asbestos with reassurances.

The technique was simple: Make a mockery of science. Perform scientific tests but use the wrong equipment in the wrong places the wrong way.

The technique was put into effect immediately, when EPA conducted its initial tests for asbestos.

First of all, query why they focussed so exclusively on asbestos. There were over two thousand contaminants released in the disaster, some of which had never before existed.

But even if this autistic focus on asbestos had been plausible, how could EPA's tests have come up with the wrong results?

Dr. Cate Jenkins, an EPA whistleblower, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that EPA had used 20-year-old instruments to conduct their tests. For every fiber of asbestos that EPA found, independent contractors found nine. The risk of cancer from the asbestos alone could be one person in ten.

EPA's Region 8 out West offered Region 2 in New York up-to-date equipment which they could conveniently summon from New Jersey. Region 2's William Muczynski said, "We don't want you fucking cowboys here."

Fortunately, a task force was set up to investigate what had gone wrong with Region 2's response to 9/11. Unfortunately, the task force was headed by Muczynski.

Also EPA used a 1% standard for asbestos in the dust. But this standard was established for intact materials like water pipes. If a minute piece of the pipe broke off that contained more than 1% asbestos, that was considered dangerous because it might be inhaled.

EPA applied this 1% standard to Lower Manhattan where none of the material was intact. All of it had been pulverized. All of it could be inhaled. Furthermore, there were tons of dust. Since 9/11, EPA has been nothing if not consistent. In addition to using out-of-date equipment, they have routinely advocated the wrong tests. For instance they advocated a wipe test for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on soft surfaces whereas the test was intended only for hard surfaces. They resisted testing on horizontal surfaces where dust falls or in corners where dust was likely to be found, favoring vertical surfaces and countertops which had been frequently cleaned. They fought the use of ultrasonication, a sensitive test for asbestos which they themselves had developed. They based their determination of whether an area was contaminated on a 'visual inspection' which means one of their reps would eyeball a given site and say, "Looks good to me." In some cases, this visual inspection was performed - I kid you not - from an airplane.

And how did they determine whether the dust they found was WTC dust? In one building, they asserted, "That's not WTC dust; WTC dust is grey and gritty;" in another, "That's not WTC dust; WTC dust is brown and fluffy."

Other abuses of science included EPA's writing off of deposits of magnesium because it's a nutrient. If only we'd known we were supposed to eat WTC dust instead of breathing it, perhaps everything would have turned out all right although I doubt it. People who ingested WTC dust now suffer gastro-intestinal as well as respiratory and other illnesses.

Then there was the issue of spikes.

When my son was twelve he wanted to be a magician. As he underwent his sorcerer's apprenticeship, I picked up some tricks of the trade. Rule number one is, when you're doing your sleight of hand, say, "Look over there!"

EPA and other authorities knew this trick too, and dismissed high levels as spikes or 'outliers' thereby shoving unpleasant data under the carpet.

A corollary of this practice was 'averaging' in which the 'spikes' were averaged out over a lifetime or a large area and thus made to disappear.

The human body, however, doesn't average. When the lungs are exposed to too much water, you drown. When someone overdoses on drugs, the human body doesn't say, "I'll average this out over a lifetime." You die of an overdose.

Dr. Cate Jenkins has written several memos detailing other EPA lies. The latest [October, 2006] is subtitled:

Cover-up, corrosive alkalinity of WTC dust by EPA, OSHA and NYC Falsification of the health implications of the alkaline pH data Fraudulent reporting of pH levels for smallest WTC dust particles

She shows how the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and New York City relied on outdated texts that tolerated lead levels sixty times as high as those now considered safe. And she provides evidence of their lying and criminal malpractice.

EPA's execution of tests and cleanup was as shoddy as their research. In their so-called cleanup of 2002, residents found them performing air tests with the fan turned off or facing the wrong direction.

Since 9/11, there have been several blue ribbon scientific panels which have convened to consult with EPA on next steps. At the first one, EPA neglected to tell the panel that the document on which they were supposedly conducting peer review was already being implemented downtown. The panel learned this from community members who were allowed to speak for two to three frantic minutes each in public sessions.

The final panel, which lasted almost two years, spent much of that time on a quixotic quest for a World Trade Center fingerprint or signature as though it were the fountain of youth or the alchemical formula for gold. For once the fingerprint was found, that would be it. If you had it, you had WTC dust and EPA would give you a cleanup, however shoddy. If you didn't have it, you didn't and you could get on with your life.

However a couple of us have always maintained that either metaphor was a snare. The World Trade Center was not a person; therefore it didn't have a fingerprint or a signature. Its contents were not stirred into a homogeneous blend in that great mixing bowl in the sky along with two eggs. There were over two thousand contaminants released and they were spread unevenly according to their various weights and chemical and physical properties as well as the wind conditions of the moment.

But the quest for the ever elusive fingerprint went on. First it was asbestos, then gypsum with a soupcon of, if I remember correctly, manmade vitreous fibers and a specific PH, then slag wool because in the dozen or so samples that one study had collected close to the site, slag wool, which is a component of glass, had been uniformally present.

One must ask, and one did, if a fingerprint or signature is unique and irrefutable, why did the WTC fingerprint or signature keep changing?

One must also ask, and many did, if the signature is determined to be a particular assortment of contaminants, what do we do about all the rest?

That question was never answered because EPA closed the panel process when an independent panel, commenting on their latest plan, in effect accused them of fraud.(1)

Let's go back to the assertion at the beginning of this talk that 9/11 was a watershed moment when the laws and precedents we previously relied on all got turned on their heads.

In the case of environemtal disasters what that means is this: Prior to 9/11, in the event of a release of toxic substances, EPA followed scientific protocol and conducted representative testing in concentric circles to determine the path of contamination.

But in the World Trade Center case they did no such testing. Instead, 9/11 set a new precedent for testing and cleanup: the quick and dirty method, a lick and a promise in order to get back to work ASAP. The cleanup standard they used in Lower Manhattan - a 1/10,000 cancer risk - exposed residents to a hundred times the cancer risk of previous standards. This is serving as a precedent for the new standards which they plan to implement in the event of a dirty bomb. Anti-nuclear activists have found that 100 times the usual level of radiation will be tolerated.

Why? Just as the Inspector General's Report of 2003 found that the White House CEQ edited EPA's press release out of the 'need' to reopen Wall Street, EPA has matter-of-factly stated that if the area affected by a dirty bomb is important to the economy, human health will be sacrificed. Economic hubs tend to be highly populated. So the more people who are likely to be exposed to radiation because a particular contaminated site is important to the economy, the greater will be the haste to reopen the site.

What Lessons Can We Learn From The Environmental Disaster of 9/11?

The answer to this is the reason I felt it important to speak at this conference. What we can learn from the environmental disaster of 9/11 is that it is up to us to educate ourselves. We cannot trust the powers that be, the suits. We cannot bow to their supposed greater authority. To do that, knowing what we know, is to put our collective head in the sand and abdicate responsibility.

This lesson is of enormous importance as Peak Oil takes over the world. For the same scenario is playing out in this new arena. First the powers that be tell us there is no problem. Then, when the elephant in the living room grows too large, they acknowledge the problem but say, "Look over there!" and point to the tar sands in Alberta or to ethanol.

But will these solutions really work?

Just as after 9/11 it was necessary for the community - non-scientists - to teach themselves enough science to recognize rampant lying, in order to understand what's really happening with Peak Oil, it is necessary to do the math.

It's not hard math; about sixth grade level, if that's when you study ratios. So what does doing the math tell us?

The light, sweet crude oil we've been relying on to run the economy gives thirty barrels of oil for every one used to produce it. Around last December, the world's supply of that so-called easy oil went into permanent decline. Tar sands and heavy crude are not the same stuff. It takes steam, water injection or chemicals to extract them which in turn requires energy. And all the alternatives and renewables added up together don't come close to the Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio for easy oil. The EROEI for ethanol, for instance, is 1.3; It barely gives back more energy than is required to make it in the first place.

With the decline in oil supplies, you might think, "Great; everyone will ride bikes." But oil is not just used for cars. It's a key ingredient of pesticides and fertilizers which, however much you might turn up your nose at their toxicity, are necessary to feed our current population of six and a half billion people.

Answers to the problems we're facing do not lie in British Petroleum's changing its name to Beyond Petroleum, or in politicians' soundbites offering easy answers. The devil is in the details. How much oil is necessary to keep the economy going? What will it take to sustain life as we know it?

The answers to these questions are not happy. The current economic paradigm is a Ponzi scheme that requires infinite growth. The earth is finite. There is no reconciling these two facts, not with all the renewables and nifty technofixes in the world, however useful those may be on a limited scale. But between the two, we have more control over the economy than over the finite resources of the earth so it is this that we must reform.

It must become localized rather than global. Peak Oilists are fond of pointing out that the era of the fifteen hundred mile Caesar salad is over. We'll have to rely on local food sources, grown within a hundred miles. And it would be better to transition to that lifestyle now than have it thrust upon us the hard way.

Why are people resistant to looking at these facts? Why do they persist in writing off Peak Oilists as fringey radicals, even as the Peak Oilists are being corroborated by headlines and world events?

Though more and more people have lost faith in George Bush and lies have been uncovered that make Watergate seem halcyon, the American people have not extrapolated. "Yes," they say, "there was the Downing Street memo, and the WMD never existed, and we invaded Iraq based on lies, and the government lied about the air quality following 9/11 and betrayed the heroes of Ground Zero who are sick and dying as a result, but the U.S. government caused the attacks? That's crazy. As for this Peak Oil business - If it's true, why aren't they talking about it on CNN?"

They're not talking about it on CNN because the Powers That Be at CNN don't want them to. They're keeping up the facade as long as they can while they clean out the cupboards. By the time you learn the cupboards are bare, it'll be a fait accompli. As ABC's Reuven Frank once said, "News is something someone doesn't want you to know. Everything else is advertising."

It's often said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. What's happening now is that those who do know history are repeating it anyway, which is why history seems to be repeating itself.

It isn't repeating itself verbatim. Peak Oil isn't going to poison people; no one's going to get a deadly disease from it, at least, not directly. It's the structure of the drama that's being repeated. Again the powers that be are withholding the truth or actively lying. Again they are doing so 'in order not to panic the public.' Again the media are complicit or clueless. And again the public is trusting them anyway because that's what they've always done and doing the legwork themselves is just too hard.

After 9/11, the people of Lower Manhattan were beguiled by the government, like children by the Pied Piper, to return to an area which every instinct told them was poisonous. They did this even as a few voices, some of them belonging to independent scientists, cried out, "This will kill you."

Some went back because they believed the government or they had nowhere else to go. But others went back because they were blinded: By wishful thinking because they wanted to go home; by ambition, because Lower Manhattan was where their jobs were; or by arrogance, smugly writing off the naysayers as fringey eccentrics because it is comforting to feel superior.

Some of these people boasted impressive achievements, advanced degrees, high IQs. But these credentials got in the way of their ability to perceive the truth. They were not open to the opinions of those who didn't represent an agency or have some sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Who did we think we were?

What we can learn from the environmental disaster of 9/11 is that eight million Frenchmen can be wrong. The people who recognized early on how bad the air was and how egregiously the government was lying were a small minority. We lacked critical mass while the masses themselves were anything but critical. We had kooties. We were the kids whom the cool crowd looked down on. But we would rather have been proven wrong.

If any good is to come out of the environmental disaster of 9/11, it is as an innoculation against even greater disasters in the future. Those disasters will be both unique and universal. They will repeat history not in their superficial details - fascism does not always goosestep down Main Street wearing a brush mustache - but in their fundamental structure.

Those who lived through the lies and the terrible consequences of the environmental disaster of 9/11 must learn:

1. Truth doesn't always come dressed with the trappings of authority, or even wear a suit.

2. The smarter and more educated we are, the more we must be on guard against arrogance. We must keep an open mind and listen even to those from out in left field. Our lives depend on it.


1. [The independent panel raised questions as to whether] "... EPA's evaluation and interpretation of the study data were performed fairly. Peer reviewers pointed to several non-standard steps taken to enhance the study's ability to distinguish WTC dust from background dust. These steps could be interpreted as attempts to prove the method's success rather than to objectively evaluate its real-world potential for fingerprinting WTC dust."