What To Do With An Auto Graveyard

Six months after they were crushed, burned or covered with debris, New York City is ready to dispose of more than 1,000 vehicles recovered from the World Trade Center attacks. The city had planned to hand the cars and trucks over to insurance companies or owners as early as Monday. But at the last moment, the federal government stepped in and called a halt to the transfer.

For weeks, local, state and federal officials have squabbled over whether the vehicles—most of which are coated with fine powder of World Trade Center debris—are safe. "We know the dust contains lead, zinc, mercury, asbestos, not to mention organic materials," says New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler. "To release cars to owners is highly irresponsible." On Thursday, Nadler wrote a letter to the Enivronmental Protection Agency's Christie Todd Whitman urging her to file an emergency injunction against the city to prevent their release. On Friday, the EPA asked the city to meet with its officials before releasing the cars.

The New York City Department of Health told Newsweek it will honor the EPA's request, but that its decision to release the autos was based on careful review of numerous environmental tests. "The data indicates that there is no significant risk to human health," says Kelly McKinney, the NYC Department of Health's Associate Commissioner for Environmental Health. "The fundamental way we work is to gather as much data as we can, to look at that data, compare it with whatever standards are available, compare it with our knowledge of the issues, and that's what we did with this issue as we have with every World Trade Center issue."

In December, New York's then-health commissioner Neal Cohen said the cars' engines and bodies were contaminated with dangerous World Trade Center debris and would not be returned. Two months later, after owners of the vehicles sued the city to get them back, city officials reversed themselves and said they would release the autos—along with written instructions on how to clean them.

What to do with these damaged vehicles is the latest chapter in an ongoing debate about contamination in and around the World Trade Center. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), an environmental safety group, claims that government agencies are ignoring basic standards for environmental contamination in the massive cleanup effort. "If any of the dust in these cars is more than 1 percent asbestos, and the car was a building, you wouldn't be able to touch it unless you had an asbestos handler's license from the state and a permit for that job," says Jonathan Bennett, a spokesman for NYCOSH. "We think returning the cars is a public hazard. They'll go to body shops, they'll go to garages... the workers who are cleaning these cars are not even going to know they will be faced with the hazard."

Insurance companies have already made plans to pick up their cars from the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and sell them at auction, or in cases where the vehicle is inoperable, they can recycle salvageable parts.

Some investigators who have worked on the recovery effort, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say they are relieved that the cars will not be returned to the general public. One local law-enforcement source says investigators who worked on the cars have are also worried about another potential hazard: the vehicles could still contain human body parts. "We found arms, legs, a ribcage" inside cars and trucks, says the source. "Imagine if we missed something?"