The Twin Towers opened for business amid great fanfare in 1975, and quickly became one of the world's best-known landmarks, rivaling established architectural marvels like the Eiffel Tower, The Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House. When its majestic structural complexity was reduced to smoke and dust on September 11th, the country's grief and despair as quickly as the acrid odor of the towers' refuse permeated Manhattan.
Earthquakes and bombs have decimated cities before, and large buildings have tumbled in the past, but never has there been a catastrophe of such great magnitude in so small a space. Before their collapse the two 110-story skyscrapers, which occupied a few blocks of lower Manhattan, teemed each day with enough workers and visitors to fill a city with a population of 50,000.
While our compassion and patriotism ran at an all time high as we mourned the loss of life and innocence, within a few short months our emotional solidarity morphed into what some deem a cold-hearted financial perspective. What to do with the 1.2 million tons of tangled debris and charred steel girders?
President Bush's speech post-September 11th, where he said, "these acts shattered steel but they cannot shatter the steel of American resolve" resonates on not only a figurative but also a literal level. The business of doing business in a capitalistic society is just that, doing business, and the yellow tape of the crime scene was quickly replaced by a "For Sale" sign.
The U.S. scrap-recycling industry is a $20 billion a year enterprise. The World Trade Center wreckage is expected to produce an estimated 300,000 tons of structural steel, which industry experts estimated the city's Design and Construction Department could sell to recyclers for $75 to $100 a ton. Once cut and reforged, the steel could then be resold for $220 to $600 a ton.
Selling the WTC's remains is, of course, an enterprise fraught with public relations peril. Within these twisted girders are entombed the remains of 9/11's victims, and the sale of this makeshift mausoleum predictably outraged victims' families. But the upside seemed to lucrative to pass up.
Metal Management Northeast of Newark, NJ and Hugo Neu Schnitzer East (one of the largest scrap recyclers in the nation) of Jersey City, NJ won the initial bids from NYC to recycle the Trade Center steel. Workers at the Hugo Neu salvage yard, just a mile across the Hudson River from the Trade Center, actually witnessed the towers fall on September 11. Now their job is to torch, shred, cut and resell the buildings to steelmakers who will melt it down in huge ovens to make new products. These products could literally be almost anything--the World Trade Center's metal could become skyscrapers, roads, bridges, cars or soup cans.
The scenario with the most closure is probably the one involving new skyscrapers--new buildings rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old. Bob Kelman, a Hugo Neu Senior Vice President, told the New York Times in October 2001 (shortly after his company won the bid) that "hopefully (the steel) will be made into a series of towers that are as proud as the ones that came down."
Kelman, of course, has little control over that; it is a decision lies with whoever purchases the remains of 9/11 from the recyclers. And who will that be? Steel demand remains weak in the US as the three major US automakers--Ford, General Motors and Chrysler--announced plans to idle seven plants in response to slow new vehicle sales since the September 11th attacks. US recyclers are increasingly turning to Asian markets, where mills pay between five and ten percent more than domestic firms. Interestingly, much of the original steel from the World Trade Center was forged in Japan, and the global steel industry is now concentrated in that country, as well as in China, India and Korea. (The US steel industry is foundering badly, and its decline prompted President Bush to place restrictive tariffs on steel imports in March). The World Trade Center, in other words, is going home.
Several vessels have already sailed from New York with consignments of scrap. Among them are the extremely dense steel girders from Ground Zero, which could finally total between 250,000 to 400,000 tons. At least one shipload, onboard a vessel named Brozna, landed in the South Indian port city of Chennai in early January. Two other ships, the Shen Quan Hai and the Pindos, also reported to be carrying World Trade Center scrap, have berthed and offloaded their cargo in Chennai.
Meanwhile, PEC Ltd, an Indian state-owned metals trader, has imported 33,000 tons of steel scrap from New Jersey, including thousands of tons of scrapped structural steel salvaged from the mangled remains of the WTC. They will be selling the scrap to local steel mills that will smelt and recycle them into Indian buildings, according to Corporate Watch.
Similar shipments have reportedly reached China, where the Baosteel Group purchased 50,000 tons. Malaysia and South Korea are also reported to have received shipments. Baosteel executives denied reports that it plans to make souvenirs out of metal from the collapsed buildings. But officials at Shanghai Baosteel said that the company did buy scrap from the wreckage of the terrorist attack. The Shanghai-based conglomerate plans to feed most of the debris into a furnace to make new steel.
These sales, however, may be tainted, both literally and figuratively. According to Corporate Watch, more than 30,000 tons of the Ground steel scrap is potentially contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, cadmium, mercury and dioxins. Contamination of steel 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.
On February 4, Greenpeace called for an investigation into whether the shipments were contaminated, and demanded that the movement of scrap be halted until the safety of both workers and the environment could be ascertained. The next day, the People's Union for Civil Liberties, in Chennai, made a similar demand. Bob Kelman, the Hugo Neu Vice President, admitted in a late February interview with National Public Radio that his company hadn't disclosed the origin of the WTC steel to its Asian buyers, but justified this decision on grounds that the EPA hadn't found harmful levels of contamination at Ground Zero. He also pointed out that steel is not an absorbing material that assimilates liquid waste, or carries with excessive amounts of dust.
It might be easy, at this point, to accuse the US of a double standard--protecting its own people while dumping toxic pollutants on other nations. But that analysis doesn't stand up well to scrutiny, since the government hasn't gone out of its way to protect its own people. At Ground Zero, thousands of rescue workers and residents have been exposed to unknown but significant levels of air contamination. A few days after the attacks, even President Bush stood on the rubble without protective gear, rallying the citizenry, too shocked and too busy to take proper precautions against the toxic cloud that hung over Manhattan. Hundreds of New York firefighters are filing for permanent disability, while serious respiratory infections and other chronic health problems afflict area residents. The question of whether the WTC waste is indeed toxic won't be resolved for years, but it is significant to note that insurance companies like American International Group and Liberty Mutual have refused coverage to the demolition contractors charged with the clean up at Ground Zero.
Not all of Ground Zero's steel has gone overseas, however. Metal Management Northeast sold 500 tons of the scrap to the International Agile Manufacturing foundry in Statesboro, GA, which planned to produce "Eyewitness World Trade Center Commemorative Medallions" for $180 million in sales (6 million coins at $30 each). Families of the victims protested, calling the practice ghoulish and disrespectful, and Alan Ratner, president of Metal Management indicated that all orders were cancelled once he discovered the foundry's plans for the material.
To compensate for this lapse in judgement, Metal Management has donated several pieces of wreckage to organizations seeking to establish a WTC memorial. Less than half a mile from its dock, two 8-foot I-beam form a replica of the towers in an unfinished shrine at Stella Maris Seaman's Church. Additionally, they have reserved a large chunk of concrete and steel, which their workers call 'The Meteorite', that contains three to four floors of a building compressed into a 5-by-7-ball. Marked "For PA" in chalk, it will one day become part of a Port Authority Memorial.
This is an act of good taste, Metals Management, in doing it, may prove to be an exception. eBay, the Internet's online auction site, has been asked by New York City to pull all items from its Web site that tries to capitalize on the World Trade Center attacks. Stating that the items were distasteful and repugnant, Michael Cordozo, one of the city's top lawyers, wrote that a puzzle toy in which a child navigates "a jumbo jet through the World Trade Center" was perhaps the most reprehensible item.
It is true that steel is the most recyclable product in the world and that today's twin towers could become tomorrow's kitchen sink--as crass as that might sound. It is also true that steel has no memory. But we do. And as conscientious citizens of a global marketplace, we need to weigh the price tag of our memories on a footing equal to the potential yields of international commerce.
The current death toll for the WTC collapse is 2,893.