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
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
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
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
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
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?