FLASHBACK: World Trade Center Scrap Lands in India

(CorpWatch)   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.

Mysterious Shipments

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 of Kandla.

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.

Who’s Responsible?

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 re-processors 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.


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