07/30/2010 04:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time To Clear the Air at Ground Zero

From the very first moments after the twin towers of the World Trade Center crumbled on 9/11, it has been difficult to see through the dust left by the collapse. The resulting haze -- an unprecedented mixture of pulverized concrete, glass, steel and the minute particles of daily life -- obscured the truth. Nine years later, the air still has not cleared.

That much was evident on Capitol Hill last night. Although a big majority of Congress (255) voted to reopen the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund to help the thousands of responders and volunteers who braved the dust, smoke and ash, the bill did not pass and the fund will stay closed. A simple majority wasn't enough because House leaders said they had decided to rely on a risky strategy to pass the bill without giving Republicans a chance to amend it. Under those rules, a two-thirds majority was needed to pass.

Like so much else involved with the lingering health effects of the dust, the move seemed enveloped in histrionics and stagecraft. No one believed that even a bill to provide medical assistance to injured firefighters and cops could garner the required 276 votes, not at this time. Nor was it clear that there would ever be enough votes in the Senate to clear the way for a new entitlement program projected to cost $7 to $10 billion.

But by putting up the bill now, House leaders and the democratic majority won the right to say in November that they had voted for the bill and that it would have passed, and the heroes of 9/11 would have been helped, if only the Republicans had gone along. (12 Republicans did) New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was outrageous that the legislation "became a victim of partisan election-year politics."

What happened last night shouldn't surprise anyone. There's been confusion and double speak about the environmental and health consequences of the recovery and clean up operations from the very beginning. The unwillingness of authorities to stop and answer the tough questions about what happened has led to an ever expanding political, legal and scientific morass in which stagecraft often speaks louder than the truth.

It all started in the days after the attack in 2001 with the unwillingness of federal officials to clearly describe the conditions Lower Manhattan in plain language that would have helped the responders know how and when to protect themselves with the proper equipment. Then the city, in a legitimate rush to recover and get back to business, allowed misunderstandings to continue.

There's little doubt now that the dust hurt firefighters and other responders who were there in the worst conditions of the first three days. Even veterans of many fires said they'd never experienced anything like it before. Further studies showed conclusively that asthma increased and that there was a spike in certain lung-scarring diseases like sarcoidosis.

But beyond that, most of what followed was correlation, not causation, and without solid scientific proof, the vast array of compounds in the dust that resulted from the obliteration of a vertical city made it possible to see hundreds of different ailments as being related to exposure to the dust. Maybe so, but science says it's not likely.

Still, with the authority of the government undermined by the early ambiguous statements, everything could be questioned. The term "hero" was applied to everyone who claimed to have spent any time at or near ground zero for the nine months it took to clear the site. Once the original Compensation Fund closed shop at the end of 2003, the personal injury lawyers drew near, sniffing at the $1 billion insurance policy that the Bush Administration had put into place.

In time, they signed up more than 10,000 clients who claimed they had contracted a vast array of more than 350 different kinds of illnesses, all because of the dust. After years of litigation, we now know that while some have become seriously ill, thousands have only sinusitis and other minor ailments, while hundreds admit they are not sick at all but worried they might be.

The city -- which had originally fought against the idea of admitting that the dust had caused any illnesses -- recently agreed to a settlement that could exceed $700 million. But there are so many plaintiffs that once lawyers' fees and expenses are taken out, the recoveries are pitifully small, especially for the responders whose lungs have been ravaged. Those who legitimately need the help won't get all they should, while some could end up with more than they deserve.

The irony now is that the settlement can go forward only if 95 percent of the nearly 10,000 plaintiffs accept it. But many have been reluctant to join the settlement and preferred to wait for Congress to reopen the Victim Compensation Fund.

What has truly been lacking since 2001 is candor, a commitment to the truth fed by science and justice, not histrionics. It's time for the dust to finally be cleared from the air and to see the truth for what it is, so that the city, and the country, can finally move on.