Hearings - Testimony
 
Subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management
Impact of Certain Government Contractor Liability Proposals on Environmental Laws
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
 
Dr. Joel Shufro
Executive Director, New York Committee for Occupational Health and Safety (NYCOSH)

My name is Joel Shufro and I am the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a non profit educational organization dedicated to every workers’ right to a safe and healthful workplace. We have a 26 year- history of providing quality safety and health training and technical assistance to working people, unions, employers, government agencies, and community-based organizations about how to recognize and eliminate workplace health hazards. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, NYCOSH has worked with these constituencies to evaluate the environmental and occupational health consequences resulting from the release of dust and fumes which contaminated Lower Manhattan. We have have had extensive involvement with workers who participated in rescue, recovery and clean up operations at the World Trade Center site, workers in offices surrounding Ground Zero, immigrant workers who cleaned offices and residences, utility workers who restored essential services to the area, and residents living in or returning to contaminated homes around Ground Zero.

 

We are here to oppose S.1761, which exempts contractors from citizens’ suits brought under federal environmental law and immunizes contractors from liability for personal injuries or property damage in response to disasters. Our position is informed as a result the thousands of workers who have developed physical and mental illnesses in the aftermath of the tragedy at the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001.

To those involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup, working at the World Trade Center site was more than a job. Those who responded to the disaster did so for many reasons: patriotism, altruism, and humanitarianism, among other motives. They responded to the needs of their country; many working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for months. But they, like all workers, expected that those who employed them would provide them with safe and healthful working conditions and comply with federal, state and city regulations. They assumed that if they were harmed as a result of working at the site, their medical needs would be taken care of and they and their families would not be driven into poverty. They believed that they would not be forced to give up their homes, and that their children would not have to drop out of college so medical bills could be paid.

Unfortunately, four years following the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center, respiratory illness, psychological distress and financial devastation have become a new way of life for many of the responders, office workers and residents in Lower Manhattan. According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, workers and volunteers continue to experience high rates of upper respiratory illnesses high rates of upper respiratory problems, sinusitis laryngitis and higher rates of lower respiratory problems - asthma, bronchitis, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing. In fact, the persistent cough is so unique it has been named the World Trade Center Cough. It is essential that you understand that these health problems were incurred not only by exposure to toxic substances in the dust cloud released at the time of the collapse of the twin towers. Rather it is likely that the majority of cases of adverse health effects were caused or exacerbated by exposure to toxic chemicals by workers and residents engaged in recovery and cleanup operations in the 10 or so months following 9/11. Many of these workers were either employed by federal or private contractors.

Nor is the appearance of illness among workers who worked in the area following the September 11th tragedy and residents abating. According to Dr. Steven Levin, co-director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mt. Sinai, symptoms continue to appear among workers four years after exposure. Other workers, whose symptoms abated after initial onset, are experiencing re-current symptoms related to their initial exposure. Additionally, as Dr. Robin Herbert, also co-director of the WTC Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mt. Sinai, points out there are, “grave concerns about their potential for developing slower-starting diseases such as cancer in the future. For many coming through our program, the fears of future catastrophic diseases like cancer, which can take as long as twenty to thirty years to show up, loom as large or larger than their acute ailments.” These concerns have been heightened by the recent passing of two New York City Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) whose deaths have been related to illness resulting from exposure to toxic substances at the World Trade Center.

Many of the workers are disabled by chronic pulmonary problems. Some are unable to work. In many cases, workers’ lives have been significantly altered by breathing difficulties and the psychological consequences of their response efforts. Many have also suffered substantial economic disruption because of WTC-related health problems, do not have health insurance and are unable to pay for treatment or needed medicine. According to the doctors at WTC Screening Program at Mt. Sinai, who have seen the most diseased workers resulting from 9/11, many workers are without medicine, medical treatment and wage replacement.

What happened during recovery and cleanup operations at the World Trade Center was a preventable public health disaster. There is no doubt that the World Trade clean up was one of the most dangerous and complex construction sites in the history of the country. But, those who had management responsibility failed to provide workers with working conditions that protected their safety and health. They failed to provide workers with a “safe and healthful workplace, free of recognized hazards” as required by law. Rather than make a stronger commitment to protect workers and residents from environmental and occupational hazards in future disasters, the contractors are lobbying to pass S.1761, which would free them from most liability for personal injury claims when engaged in responding to a major disaster such as Katrina, as well as from citizen suits brought under federal environmental laws. We believe that such legislation would undercut any incentives contractors have to comply with safety and health and environmental regulations.

Federal contractors, who are paid by the taxpayers for the work that they do, should be held fully accountable to the public if they behave carelessly and cause harm to people or the environment. No public policy reason justifies a taxpayer subsidy for negligence or illegal activity. What S.1761 does is to shift the cost of personal injuries and property damage from government contractors to the workers and/or residents in the disaster areas.

It is imperative that workers know that, if they come to the aid of their country in disaster situations, contractors employed by the government will be held to high standards which protect both the workers and the members of the community in which they are working. They need to know if they should be injured or contract an illness in the process, their medical needs will be taken care of and that their families will be secure. And they need the guarantee that contractors who do not act responsibly will be held liable.

Responsible government contractors should have no need of the sweeping immunity this bill would provide. We urge you to oppose this legislation, which would provide a windfall to irresponsible contractors at the expense of public health and the environment.

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1. Physical Health Status of World Trade Center Rescue and Recovery Workers and Volunteers --- New York City, July 2002--August 2004, By SM Levin, MD, R Herbert, MD, JM Moline, MD, AC Todd, PhD, L Stevenson, MPH, P Landsbergis, PhD, S Jiang, MS, G Skloot, MD, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York. S Baron, MD, P Enright, MD, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, September 10, 2004 / 53(35);807-812 .

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2. Testimony of Robin Herbert, MD., before The United States Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Relations Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations Assessing September 11th Health Effects: What Should Be Done? Robin Herbert, M.D. Medical Co-Director, Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine Co-Director, World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program Associate Professor, Department of Community and Preventive Medicine Mount Sinai School of Medicine New York, New York September 10, 2005

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3. The Ghosts of Ground Zero By Katherine Stapp, Inter Press Service New Agency, February 1, 2005

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4. Testimony Ground Zero Poisoned Workers, Laurie Garrett, Newsday, October 29, 2003. See also

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