Statement of Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D.
US Senate Environment Committee hearing on Air Quality issues surrounding the World Trade Center collapses and fires
February 25, 2002
My name is Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D. I'm a Scientist-in-Residence at Lehman College, and an adjunct professor at Lehman and Hunter College, City University of New York. I was the Department of Sanitation's specialist on emissions from incinerators in the 1980s, the author of a book and numerous publications on the subject of minimizing emissions, and I served on a National Academy of Sciences committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, co-authoring the NRC publication by that name. I also served on the New Jersey Standard-Setting Task Force on Mercury emissions from incinerators in the early 1990s. My graduate degrees are in geology, environmental sciences, and energy technology. More details about my credentials can be gleaned from the above website.
I thank the Senate environment committee for having this hearing on the health impacts on lower Manhattan due to the World Trade Center collapses and fires. I hope that, once you have fully investigated the statements and actions by EPA and other governmental agencies at all levels, investigated the precedents set by earlier EPA actions that have applied to similar situations elsewhere but not in lower Manhattan, that you will work hard to investigate what happened, why it happened, to make recommendations for improvements in procedures, standards, communications, and research, and to seek to have implemented the many good recommendations that were made at the hearing and subsequent testimony. It's vital to understand that not only are there immediate problems to remediate (clean-up, treatment of illness), but there are many more problems to solve so that the next time there is an environmental disaster of any kind, procedures are in place for every aspect of the myriad of issues that result. As important as remediating current problems and preventing new ones, I hope you will publicize everything that you find so that the public understands, and is therefore more likely to support all recommendations.
There are several issues of importance to and lessons to be learned by New York State in the way the environmental agencies have handled air quality issues in lower Manhattan since Sept. 11.
First, I concur with the Ground Zero Task Force, that there still needs to be a Cleanup Oversight Agency -- I'd go further and say that there needed/needs to be one agency responsible for monitoring health and providing health assistance, and another for environmental sampling, analysis and public dissemination of the results. There was a long delay before all the environmental and health agencies even began to talk with one another about sampling of air quality and accumulated dust. I heard from a high level policy official at City DEP that it took 2 weeks for discussions to start between the head of NYCDEP (Miele) and the local USEPA office. When did DEC begin to coordinate with these other agencies? Can we learn specific lessons from each breakdown in communications and preparedness and devise specific procedures for all to follow in the future?
Second, the WTC collapses and fires actually constituted a brand new, combination type of air pollution source, with aspects of a (1) crematorium (most of the bodies will never be found because they were cremated, and their ashes scattered all over downtown and surrounding areas intermingled with the asbestos, fiberglass and concrete dusts), (2) a solid waste incinerator of unprecedented proportion (described below), (3) asbestos factory (but on a scale thousands of times the size and intensity of what would be found even in a badly operated factory) and (4) volcano (the initial cloud was similar to nuee ardente - hot gas and dust cloud - in some respects, depositing ash in a large area). There are many toxic, carcinogenic and irritating pollutants, standards need to be rewritten to assess the impacts of synergy - to protect the public health.
Since this is a new type of air pollution source, no emissions standards exist and therefore, none of the existing standards for other sources directly applied. Many of us remember the bitter battles between Brooklyn residents and the City over the Brooklyn Navy Yard plant. The emissions from this plant would have been controlled well over 90% for most pollutants, and yet we have an incinerator downtown which continues to burn totally uncontrolled. New York State wrote a law banning the construction of this incinerator due to public pressure. Yet the extent of environmental contamination by this incinerator would have paled in comparison to what people have been living with for months. The emissions from the World Trade Center fires were orders of magnitude more than any incinerator, many months have passed, and we have heard very little about a serious attempt to contain the emissions from the site. No attempt had been made to put out the fires (i.e. by cutting off the sources of oxygen from above and the tunnels below.) No procedures have been established to require or do this. Why wasn't there discussion to erect a temporary structure (dome) over the site, and install incinerator emissions controls to clean the air inside the dome so that the workers could do their work in safer conditions and the cleanup around the downtown be finished, once and for all? (Now every time there is a wind, the debris is picked up and dispersed)
Third, there has been a toxic and carcinogenic "soup" of air pollutants in the downtown air, constantly being generated by fires, and worse, smoldering embers that incompletely combust thousands of tons of toxic precursors present in the form of fine particles and gases -- the perfect recipe formation of dioxins, furans, and similar products of incomplete combustion.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect machine for generating toxic and carcinogenic air pollution. First, there were thousands of tons of asbestos, fiberglass, silica, and very alkaline concrete which was pulverized into various size fractions, but much of which was extremely fine in size. Then there was a tremendous source of heavy metals, PCBs, and acids just from the building's contents (latex paints typically contain mercury - think of the number of gallons there was on the walls). Lead came from volatilization of lead from car batteries, leaded glass in computer screens, lead solder, and lead pigments among other sources. Mercury would have come from batteries, fluorescent lighting, paints, thermostats and thermometers, mercury light switches, and other sources. The same is true of cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Most of this was initially pulverized; much of that was then in a form easy to volatilize given a high enough temperature.
In addition there were combustible products and packaging all over the buildings -- everything from products and packaging made of paper, cardboard, wood and plastic, including furniture, floor coverings, textile partitions just to name a very few. Fire is easier to start when the combustible matter is a very fine size because the temperature and oxygen can get to all surfaces quickly (try to start a log burning vs. small scraps of paper). The source of heat in the WTC came not only from burning of the jet fuel, but also from the cars underground, as well as from the combustible materials in the building (paper and plastic are highly combustible).
The paper and plastics are not only important because they fed the fires, which volatilized metals and other toxic gases, but also because under conditions of a few hundred degrees to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, dioxins, furans, and similar compounds form, de novo, when paper and plastic smolder where insufficient oxygen and temperature is present to burn them thoroughly. In the 1970s, before it was known that municipal solid waste incinerators needed to be designed and operated very carefully to combust the waste thoroughly, some incinerators created tens of thousands of nanograms/cubic meter of dioxin emissions. The stack size of one of these incinerators was a tiny fraction of the equivalent stack size of the World Trade Center air pollution source. In the pile, there was certainly little oxygen, there was a great deal of dioxin precursors (paper and plastics), and the temperatures were perfect for incomplete combustion, so the smoldering would have permitted the generation of an enormous quantity of toxic and carcinogenic organics.
Dioxin is a family of 210 discrete man-made chemicals that are some of the most carcinogenic and toxic chemicals known. Dioxin is the contaminant of Agent Orange that was responsible for birth defects across Vietnam after that war ended. Dioxin adheres very tightly to particulate matter in incinerators, and is stored in fatty tissues in human beings for long periods of time. Dioxins are created in large quantities in poorly designed, uncontrolled incinerators, when products such as paper, cardboard, wood are incompletely burned with such substances as PVC plastic, benzene, and other chlorinated ring structures. The Trade Center was full of fuel for such incomplete combustion. The optimal temperatures for formation of dioxin are roughly between 400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. European dioxin emission standards from an incinerator with a small stack (as compared with the area of Ground Zero) are 0.1 nanograms (billionths of a gram) Toxic Equivalents per cubic meter of emission.
The finer the size of the particulate matter, the greater that amount of volatilized heavy metals, dioxins/furans, and acid gases that can condense from the air and adsorb onto the particulate surfaces (because the surface area of the particulate is so much greater). Also, the finer sizes of particulate matter, laden with toxic and carcinogenic substances, can evade the body's coughing mechanism - the cilia - all the way down to the alveoli (air sacs) where they can reside for the long-term. The longer the fires burned, the greater was the source of volatilized metals, organics, and acids. The fires burned and smoldered for at least 100 days; a decision was made on some level not to attempt to suffocate them (i.e., blocking off all the sources of air from above and below). Because the decision was made not to contain the site, every time we have a heavy wind, the dust that is still all over lower Manhattan is kicked up and spread around more. The City's meager attempts to wet down the streets certainly resulted in some of the asbestos/fiberglass/toxic and carcinogenic dust to be washed out into the harbor via the storm sewers (doing unknown damage to ecosystems there), but much of the dust remained in place, just to become airborne again once the water had evaporated. The City should have been applying a "wet-vac" technology to collect the dust so that it could be brought to a hazardous waste disposal site.
Fourth, there are a few types of air quality standards --
The shortcoming of ALL these types of standards is that they were calculated by considering the effect on human health and the environment (i.e., the health of ecosystems) of only one pollutant at a time. If the air contains two, or five, or five hundred discrete organics, heavy metals, acids, each of which has its own toxic and carcinogenic properties, but every pollutant is below the individual standard levels, then the government points to that and says that the air is safe. But is it? The government hasn't written standards for combinations of pollutants, so it considers the air to be safe if all standards, as currently written, are met. It's common sense that elevated levels of five pollutants is worse than one. It's also common sense that when there are widespread complaints of symptoms ranging from headaches and coughing to new onset asthma in marathon runners, and when everyone who entered into areas a half mile away and more from Ground Zero could smell the pollution, the air has not been "safe" for everyone. The additive effects of multiple pollutants need to be considered in assessing evacuation zones, public and health measures. Furthermore, two or more pollutants can interact with one another and produce impacts that are significantly more than the additive effects. Research has shown that inhalation of both asbestos and cigarette smoke produces several times the effect of either one alone. When 1 + 1 + 1 does not equal three, but equals 30, this is called synergy. The Mt. Sinai Environmental Sciences Laboratory, which pioneered research into the health effects of asbestos, has found that those exposed to asbestos and who smoke, have not twice but 80 to 90 times the probability of suffering from asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Despite the fact that the air was still so full of contaminants that everyone could smell "it" many blocks from Ground Zero until the end of November, all three environmental agencies stated that nothing was wrong with the air at the City Club's forum on October 26. Their basis is that each individual pollutant is below action or standard levels "most" of the time. But it is clear that a large number of pollutants are significantly elevated above background levels. I received an email from Dr. David Cleverly, dioxin expert at USEPA, that dioxin had been 50 times normal background levels, but not as high as actionable levels most of the time.
But EPA's website says that "most of the air samples taken in areas surrounding the work zone and analyzed for dioxin have been below EPA's screening level, which is set to protect against significantly increased risks of cancer and other adverse health effects. The screening level is based on an assumption of continuous exposure for a year to an average concentration of 0.16 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3)", which is 60% higher than incinerator emission standards at the stack exit in several European countries. Twelve days after the attack, ambient concentrations of dioxin were 0.139 ng/m3 at Church and Dey just east of the site, 0.16 and 0.18 at Barclay and W. Broadway just north of the site, and at Broadway and Liberty, levels were at the 0.1 level. No measurements were taken northeast of the site, which would be downwind most often. The temperatures of the debris have also continued to be sufficient to vaporize many toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, mercury, to mention just a few of the many that have surely been emitted in large quantities from this uncontrolled incinerator. I, myself, could smell the metals in the air while I was at the Municipal Building for a meeting in early October. My colleague, and medical waste incinerator expert who wrote the City’s Medical waste management plan in 1991, Wally Jordan of Waste Tech, remarked that he smelled chlorinated organics when he went to the site around that time. From what I have heard, the temperature of the pile has been within this temperature range for much of the time since 9/1l, so the emissions from these fires could easily be similar to a number of uncontrolled incinerators.
Only recently did EPA put any dioxin data at all on its website, and there is no mention of background or action levels for dioxin or any other pollutant. Many heavy metals have not been listed on the websites. Background levels refer to what is loosely considered to be "normal" levels of any given pollutant in the atmosphere. But what does it mean if dioxin plus hundreds of discrete substances including asbestos and several other toxic and/or carcinogenic organic compounds, heavy metals, silica, acids and other gases and particulate matter are elevated, or even many times background levels, and are borderline actionable? Doesn't it seem likely that breathing air in which many toxic or carcinogenic pollutants are borderline actionable is worse for public health than breathing air in which only one pollutant is borderline? Yet standards assume the impact on human health is from only one pollutant. Is it protective of public health to look at each pollutant one at a time, ignoring the additive effects of inhaling each of several pollutants? Can we assume that the impacts on human health is only the additive effect of the concentrations of each pollutant, or might there be synergistic interactions between some of these compounds that increase the impacts further? Since ambient air standards are for individual pollutants, it is imperative that research be done to assess the impacts on public health of combinations of pollutants. Standards need to be rewritten as well to assess the impacts of synergy. The environmental agencies at all levels need to become more expert in evaluating the health and environmental effects of various mixtures of pollutants. Based on this information EPA should rewrite its air quality standards to assess the impacts of various combinations of pollutants so that we will be ready next time to know how to protect the public health.
Fifth, various governmental agencies have applied occupational safety exposure levels for specific pollutants to those exposed to WTC air. But there are several distinct groups of those exposed, and each group has had distinctly different exposures:
Most of these groups of exposed cannot be compared with occupational exposure. Studies of occupational exposure assume 5 days a week, 8 hours a day exposure to adults (healthy males?) What about those who live there, those at risk, those caught in the initial cloud? This requires considerable investigation, and many new standards need to be created to address these different categories of exposure.
Sixth, entrainment of pollutant-laden fine dust is also occurring, as we heard, by loading debris into trucks and barges. There are standards for reducing entrainment of incinerator ash. These involve spraying water and containment in leak-proof, covered trucks. Why aren't we enforcing those standards? Is it because this is not an incinerator? Shouldn't common sense dictate that the closest standards that exist be the ones to be followed in such a case? We heard that "guys with guns" enforce covering of trucks – Now. But I had heard from people who lived in the area, that the military had been enforcing the opposite in the first weeks, when pollutant levels were highest, so that they could check the trucks’ contents. That the trucks might be covered by leaky tarps now does not negate the exposure to residents and workers of pollutants that were emitted earlier.
Seventh, air quality data has been selectively shared with the public, leaving the public mistrustful. Further, the agencies waited far too long to begin adding monitors to the area. We can only imagine the levels of dioxin, asbestos, heavy metals, acids, other organics, silica, etc. that was in the air while people were running from the area. We shouldn’t ignore this impact on their health. On EPA’s website, it initially listed only asbestos in air, asbestos in dust and a gross measure of particulate matter in air. After several weeks passed, EPA added PCB and lead. After another few weeks, a few days' individual samples of dioxin were presented. All told, this is maybe 20 pages of information. But in a televised public forum (City Club forum held October 26 and subsequently televised on CUNY TV), EPA said that all of its data was online. EPA repeated this at City Council hearings on November 1 and at State Assembly hearings later in November. Early on, I learned that EPA had 900 pages of data, including a list of heavy metals, dioxins and furans, acid gases, as well as those items listed. But EPA has demanded that the Manhattan Borough President and City Council must file Freedom of Information requests for it or else come to the repository and look at it. I asked for an electronic copy. I was told I was the first one to ask for it, and was told that it would not be possible to email me the data. How could this be, since the data surely exist on someone's computer? The Borough President's office never filed the FOI request (since their policy is not to do so). It is just this kind of secretive behavior that invites journalists or others without scientific training, who do go down to view the full datasets, to quote data selectively. If the data were freely available in a spreadsheet, then academic, environmental, and community institutions could have already started studies. Those who want to conduct analyses are still unable to do so. Considering what is available online, the datasets appear to be thin, with many pollutants missing from the database and with only a few dates sampled for some pollutants. The first date that dioxin data are available are 12 days after the event. Most data are not available daily. Datasets for many pollutants are not available at all online.
Where was EPA while thousands of New York City residents were exposed to air pollutants from the WTC collapses? The EPA website shows only summaries of data, when they could have made data from 9/11 onwards available for lower Manhattan. If more or earlier data is available online, it's not easy for the public to find. EPA should make its entire air quality archives easily available on its website as well as those from all other sources.
Not only was EPA's secretiveness reprehensible this time, but procedures should be put in place NOW to ensure that should anything like this ever happen again, the environmental agencies would immediately be meeting to coordinate comprehensive sampling and analysis, AND prompt disclosure to the public via the internet of ALL data along with all current and applicable standards as well as background levels for each pollutant.
We also need to conduct research to understand toxic and carcinogenic impacts of multiple pollutants. One method of doing this is by conducting assays using surrogate organisms, to observe the impacts of different pollutant combinations. Tetramitus flagellate is one such organism that has been shown to indicate toxicity of unknown mixtures. Dr. Robert Jaffe, of the Environmental Toxicology Laboratory, http://www.envirolab.com/ has been pioneering work in this area.
Eighth, very little has been spoken about building codes, and how the composition, structure, and operation of buildings contributed to the death toll, and how revision of these regulations is needed to prevent future deaths. When I worked on the 83rd floor of WTC 1 for a couple of years around 1980, we didn't have fire drills very often (I can only remember one, maybe two). When we did have drills, we were told to walk down the stairs to the 78th floor at which point we were told to stay put. That was the total extent of the fire drill. Is that protective of public health? The truth is, the WTC buildings were so tall that they were not readily evacuable. The stairways were not designed to evacuate everyone in a reasonable amount of time. To complicate this further, the Port Authority made announcements to go back to their offices. They did not immediately send announcements to everyone in both buildings to evacuate to the ground floor and leave. Some people who had gone to the first floor returned to their offices and lost their lives. A last point: Firefighters were coming up the same stairwells that the thousands of office workers were using to evacuate. This effectively halved the capacity of the stairwells for evacuation purposes. How many people might have gotten out if they didn't have to wait to enter a stairwell that was reduced to half its original capacity (remembering that some of the stairwells became impassable due to the fires themselves)? How many other tall buildings in NYC have insufficient number of narrow stairwells? How many are not totally evacuated during fire drills? What about those in wheelchairs on high floors? All these questions point to the need to limit the number of floors of new buildings to a size that can easily and routinely be evacuated quickly, assuming that firefighters will need space in the stairwells.
Insofar as construction of future buildings is concerned, attention must be paid to the safety factor chosen for retarding the effect of fire on the building's structural members. The WTC was designed to withstand the impact of a 707 aircraft. But why wasn't it also assumed that the 707 would be carrying thousands of gallons of jet fuel, and that this jet fuel would cause a fire of sufficient temperature and duration to melt the steel members? This is not a difficult mental exercise, and structural engineers figured this out within a day or so of having watched the floors compact. There is no room for error. If just one floor gives way, because the steel has partially melted, the weight of floors above comes crashing down, and the entire building will collapse, immediately, as we saw. Note that WTC building #7 was not even hit by an aircraft, but it also collapsed due to the duration of fire. The structural engineers interviewed said that it would have been possible to put a thicker layer of protective coating on the structural members of the WTC, but it would have cost a little more. How many people would have been saved if the buildings held together for another half hour? We should learn from this disaster. Building codes should be revisited to address all these issues and correct all deficiencies.
Since the City Council's Environmental Protection committee held two days of hearings (November 1 and 8), and the New York State Assembly held hearings in late November, 2001, the Senate Environment Committee would be well served by looking at the transcripts and videos of those presentations -- particularly those presented by the public.
I'll close by drawing an analogy with the way the environmental agencies are dealing with the public health hazard downtown. In south Florida, where I grew up, in the 1940s, as tourism was quickly growing, the government kept information about hurricanes secret for fear that too much information would hurt business, particularly the tourist trade. Predictably, south Florida got walloped a couple of times, and then the government, wisely, decided to make an about-face and become the world's experts on hurricane tracking, prediction, alerts, mitigation and standards for evacuation of the population to protect the public health. They established a world-class center in Coral Gables to serve as the source of information and research. Later, by the time I was six, I was tracking every hurricane's progress on a chart I got for free at the 7-11 store by listening to the radio for coordinates.
We have exactly the same situation here. There is a lot we don't know. The government wants to protect business and the tourist trade. The government has kept a great deal of information off limits to anyone for the first several weeks, and lately it has made it difficult to obtain in any usable form. Even worse than this is that we don't know the long-lasting impacts of the initial huge, dense cloud of finely pulverized asbestos and silica-laden dust on those running and inhaling deeply in its midst. We don't know the additive and synergistic effects of combinations of many toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that continue to be emitted from the fires or entrained from the dust as it blows off the rooftops and ledges. Will this exposure to air pollution compromise immune systems, making people more vulnerable to future illnesses or terrorist attacks? On what basis did the government choose a perimeter for evacuation? On what basis did they rush to reopen the area? Have we learned anything from this experience? Now is a time for the environmental agencies to pull their heads from the sand, make an about-face, coordinate and release all data and interpretive guidelines on the Web. We need to err on the side of caution rather than seeking to go "back to normal" at the cost of the public health.
The federal government should assist the City by committing its funds and encouraging the Governor to seek additional federal 9/11 grants on an accelerated basis to conduct ongoing, comprehensive surveillance of symptoms in affected populations, buy room filters for residents, pay for proper indoor and building cleanup, research the acute and long-term impacts on health of highly concentrated combinations of pollutants acting for a short time, as well as elevated levels of combinations acting for longer periods of time.
The federal government should write new standards to reflect short-term exposure to high concentrations, as in the initial cloud, as well as synergistic effects of many toxic, carcinogenic pollutants.
We also need to have contingency planning for different types of environmental disasters as this new war against terrorism progresses. We need to actively examine worst case scenarios and plan for them. We need to understand how far to evacuate and for how long. This is the only way to regain public trust. Recalling the hurricane example, and realizing that we may not be finished with terrorism, becoming the world's experts in environmental health disasters and being truly open with the public is the best course of action in the long term.
Trading in Disaster
World Trade Center Scrap Lands in India
By Nityanand Jayaraman and Kenny Bruno
Special to CorpWatch
February 6, 2002
Indian Citizens Group Protests WTC Scrap
Potential Contaminants in World Trade Center Debris
CHENNAI and NEW YORK -- It might seem like a tangent to the tragedy of the Sept 11th attacks: the fate of the thousands of tons of steel that formed the twin towers. As with so many other unwanted materials from the US, more than 30,000 tons of steel scrap -- possibly contaminated with asbestos,
PCBs, cadmium, mercury and dioxins -- has been exported to India and other parts of Asia. Though the risks from the scrap are probably not on the order of the health threats at Ground Zero, the U.S. nevertheless has the obligation to ensure that toxic contamination from the World Trade Center
is not exported to other nations.
At least one shipload, onboard a vessel named Brozna, landed in the South Indian port city of Chennai in early January. The scrap was unloaded, as any routine consignment would be, by port workers with absolutely no protection. Two other ships, Shen Quan Hai and Pindos, also reported to be
carrying World Trade Center scrap berthed and offloaded their cargo in Chennai. But preliminary investigations failed to reveal documentation linking the cargo to the Trade Center. Reports are vague about another shipment making its way into Northern India through the Western port city
Similar shipments have reportedly reached China, where Baosteel Group purchased 50,000 tons of the potentially toxic scrap. Malaysia and South Korea are also reported to have received shipments. Eventually, most of the 1.5 millions tons of scrap from the cleanup may end up dirtying Asian ports
and threatening Asian workers.
Few details are known about who purchased the scrap, but an unidentified Indian trader reportedly bought an undisclosed amount of the World Trade Center debris, and the 33,000 ton shipment onboard the Brozna was collected by Chennai-based Sabari Exim Pvt. Ltd. and removed to the company's
facilities outside the city.
Nor are the names of US-based traders who may have exported the shipments to India known. However, two New Jersey companies were among the bidders that won the contract for removing more than 60,000 tons of Trade Center scrap. New Jersey-based Metal Management Northeast, bought 40, 000 tons and
Hugo Neu Schnitzer, based outside Jersey City, bought 25,000 tons. Schnitzer was reportedly eyeing the Southeast Asian markets, possibly Malaysia, where prices are higher.
Public Health Concerns From Tribeca to Chennai
In this case, it is hard to accuse the US of double standards because US safety regulations were trampled in the chaos over Ground Zero. In lower Manhattan, thousands of rescue workers and residents have been exposed daily to unknown but significant dangers from air contamination. Hundreds of New York firefighters are filing to go on permanent disability, while serious respiratory infections and other chronic health problems afflict area residents, especially children. A few days after the attacks, even President Bush stood on the rubble without protective gear, joining the rest of a city too shocked and too busy to take proper precautions against the toxic cloud over Manhattan.
The steel scrap imported by India and China may not represent the same level of health threat as Ground Zero. But given the amount of material involved, and the short time frame for any decontamination process, it is indeed possible that the steel is contaminated with toxic materials.
In the months after the bombing reports surfaced about the presence of toxic contamination at Ground Zero, including poisons such as dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), cadmium, mercury, asbestos and lead in the debris. What remains in question is whether toxic chemicals have attached
themselves to the steel scrap.
There are no safe levels of exposure to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, PCBs and dioxins, and toxic metals like cadmium, mercury and lead. Asbestos, PCBs and dioxins may cause harm even in miniscule doses. Also, like cadmium and mercury, once ingested or inhaled, they resist degradation or excretion and tend to build up to dangerous levels in the body over the long run.
Insurance companies like American International Group and Liberty Mutual have refused coverage to the demolition contractors charged with the clean-up. The contractors fear that without insurance they will be driven into bankruptcy by an anticipated flood of lawsuits over asbestos, mercury and other toxins released into the air by the collapse of the twin towers and clean up efforts, according to the New York Times.
Not Enough Information
Contamination of steel scrap is a common concern in the scrap industry. As far as CorpWatch has been able to determine, US authorities have not studied the levels of contaminants in the Trade Center scrap that was exported. If they have, the information has not reached Indian authorities
or port workers.
Trade union groups swiftly moved into action when the exports were reported last month, but were hamstrung by the lack of information. "The Port Authorities tell us that steel scrap is legal. And unless we find evidence of contamination, we can't stop the shipment," said S.R. Kulkarni, secretary of the Mumbai-based All India Port & Dock Workers Union.
Nor has the information been forthcoming in the United States. The New York Environmental Law and Justice Project recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USEPA after US public health activists suspected regulatory officials were downplaying the toxic contamination in
and around Ground Zero.
However, Chennai-based lawyer T. Mohan says there's enough doubt raised about the safety of the debris to warrant precautionary steps. "There were talks to declare Ground Zero a Superfund site. That's proof enough for us to be concerned that this consignment may be contaminated," he noted.
Under the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, it falls to the Indian Government to prevent the import of wastes if they are found hazardous. That's because the US refuses to sign the Basel Convention and is therefore not bound by the treaty. This includes an amendment know as the Basel Ban prohibiting developed countries from exporting hazardous material to industrializing nations like India. But Mohan believes that morally, "the burden of proving [the waste] is not
hazardous rests with the US exporters and US government."
Despite a Indian Supreme Court order prohibiting the imports of hazardous waste into India, US shipments top the list of hazardous waste exports to India. Everything from zinc ash, toxic ships-for-scrap and lead-bearing wastes are routinely sent to unscrupulous importers in India. The Indian regulatory agencies, notably the port and customs authorities and the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, have maintained their habitual silence on matters such as this that pertain to human health and environment.
"They seem more intent on passing the buck to each other rather than dealing with the problem and hauling in the US Government for negligence," says attorney Mohan.
Steel reprocessing is a dirty business, especially when the steel contains plastic, chemical and heavy metal contaminants. In fact, secondary steel almost always contains some toxic materials. Lower wages and laxer environmental regulations in Asian countries mean that Asian traders and reprocessors can offer better prices for the steel scrap than their European or North American counterparts. That is one of the reasons why scrap metal is exported to Asia in the first place.
The export of contaminated scrap and hazardous wastes to industrializing countries fits a long-standing pattern of environmental discrimination by the United States. An infamous example is the shipload of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia that traveled the oceans for two years before ending up on a beach in Haiti in 1988.
In a February 4th letter to the US embassy in New Delhi, three major Indian trade unions, Greenpeace and People's Union for Civil Liberties blasted the US Government for its "continued inaction" in stemming the export of wastes and scrap to industrializing countries. They called it "a consistent pattern in keeping with USA's tacit, if not active, support for toxic trade."
"We're totally opposed to the US and other rich countries using India as a dumping ground for all kinds of wastes and rejects. Such dumping of steel scrap is adversely affecting the major steel plants in our country, apart from causing environment and health problems," says P.K. Ganguly, the New Delhi-based Secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
The way out of the current bind over the World Trade Center scrap is simple, say environmentalists. United States authorities should provide evidence that the scrap lying in India is free of poisonous contaminants. If the it is found to be contaminated, then immediate steps should be taken
to return the consignment to the US.
If, on the other hand, the shipment is found clean, there may be no immediate threat of exposure to toxic chemicals. Even if the scrap turns out not to be dangerous, the question remains: who profits --and who
suffers -- from shipping valuable steel scrap to be recycled half-way across the globe in India before it returns to the US in its new incarnation as soup cans or luxury cars?
Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent, investigative reporter based in India.
Kenny Bruno coordinates CorpWatch's Corporate-Free UN Campaign.
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