Friday, May 11, 2007

DHS to EML: Drop Dead (establishment media to no one in particular: who cares?)

Here’s a story that has flown under my radar, and, it seems, just about everybody else’s, too (with one notable exception)—which is amazing, because it has everything. Everything, that is, we’ve come to expect from the agents of catastrophe, cronyism, and corruption affectionately known as the Bush Administration.

This is the story of the Environmental Measurements Laboratory, a small agency of the federal government that, much to my surprise, has its headquarters just blocks from my apartment here in NYC. The EML, as it has been known since the late Seventies, traces its origins back to the Manhattan Project, and, over its life, has earned the reputation as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on environmental radiation, its detection and measurement, and safety and abatement procedures.

When aboveground nuclear tests in Nevada sent radioactive clouds drifting eastward during the 1950’s, it was EML (then part of the Atomic Energy Commission) that spotted the problem and got the tests moved below ground. It was this lab that started sampling for radioactivity in our food supply and soil in the 50’s and 60’s. It was the EML that documented the threat from environmental radon in the Northeastern US in the 1970’s, and developed standards for radon safety and procedures for radon abatement. Today, EML watches over radiation monitoring stations throughout New York City and processes data from across the US and many other parts of the world.

When any government or public-private endeavor that dealt with radioactivity needed to calibrate its instruments, it sent them to the Environmental Measurements Lab because they were the most trusted institution for this essential maintenance, and, apparently, because they performed this service free of charge.

That’s performed. . . past tense. . . .

Enter Bush 43.

Now, it would seem to me, and probably to a lot of other honest souls, that in post-9/11 world, in the age of “loose nukes” and “dirty bombs” and smoking guns in the form of mushroom clouds (sorry, couldn’t resist)—and especially in a city that is still considered “ground zero” for such sorts of terrorist attacks—you would think that a fine, effective, and efficient agency like the EML would be safe. Hell, you’d think their staff and budget would have grown exponentially.

Of course, with the powers that be being who they be, you’d be thinking wrong.

With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (I still choke and stutter when I say that name), the Environmental Protection Laboratory was shuffled from the Office of Environmental Management over to the newly formed Science and Technology Directorate (what is it about the names this bunch gives to things?), inside the gigantic DHS bureaucracy. And thus began the classic Bush-era destruction of a useful public institution.

I am short on details, here, I am afraid. I understand that the calibration check I mentioned earlier was privatized and is now much more expensive and less trustworthy. . . I do not know the name of the private company that now performs this vital service, nor do I know their connection to Bush acolytes (I can only imagine). I also understand that EML has seen their staff cut from 120 to 35 (some of these cuts were pre-Bush, but I don’t know what percentage). And, as I read it, had anyone been writing about this a month ago, they would have been reporting on the imminent shuttering of this Laboratory.

And they still would, had it not been for a whistleblower (presumably from EML, but not necessarily), one or two Congressmen, and one journalist. A couple of weeks ago, if I understand this right, Bob Hennelly, a reporter for WNYC, New York Public Radio, either himself received an anonymous fax, or was told of a congressional committee receiving such a fax, telling of EML’s all-but-certain demise.

Hennelly did a local radio piece on May 3 in which he reported on hearings to be held by Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) looking into the decommissioning of EML. (I missed this piece, and can only find this short summary.) Then, yesterday, Hennelly followed-up during an information-filled but unfortunately kind of scattershot interview with WNYC talk show host Leonard Lopate (there is an audio stream here; alas, there is no transcript).

I have listened to the Thursday piece twice, and as Bob Hennelly tells it, the Environmental Measurements Lab was very close to dead and gone, but the hearings have opened a few eyes, gotten the attention of some area Congressmen, raised the visibility of the matter, etc. Hennelly says the newly appointed director of EML claims that the lab will now be spared. Hennelly seems to concur with that assessment, but to my ear, he was less than convincing (apparently, Senator Schumer (D-NY) was made some assurances about EML at an earlier point that were less than honest). I am not slighting the reporter for his optimism, he is closer to the story and has done yeoman’s work, it’s just that, in my experience, following the “say one thing, do another” Bush Administration, absolutely nothing is safe and no battle is ever won—even if you have some official’s word on the matter; even if what you are trying to save is as important as the Environmental Measurements Laboratory.

Alas, the wrongheaded policies and hypocrisy are really just standard operating procedures for the Bush Administration. More vexing, in this case, is that, in a time when radio-terrorism (to coin a phrase) is all the rage, and in a place where terrorist attacks have already left still-visible scars, the story of Washington’s attempts to close an important agency like the Environmental Measurements Laboratory did not get more notice from the establishment media—local or national.

As the one reporter that did do his job remarked during yesterday’s interview, “Maybe, at the time, Imus was more important.”

(Addendum: Seriously, this story is so under the radar, it’s not even mentioned on the EML’s Wikipedia page. If anyone has any more information on this story, please send it my way. Thanks.)

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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