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Ignoring the environmental disaster

  • Published at 04:58 am May 30th, 2013
Ignoring the environmental disaster

The Rana Plaza tragedy is yet another, if not the very symbol of negligence, greed and the ill-use of power culminating in the loss of thousands of lives and livelihoods. As has been deemed by people of all walks of life, this tragedy is unbearable. We can only hope that the rule of law shall prevail so that at least justice is done and such devastations are avoided in the future. The Rana Plaza tragedy reminded me of another horrific incident of building collapse and that was of September 11, 2001. The implications of 9/11 on the decade since have been discursive enough to affect global decision making on various scales. The Rana Plaza incident has brought to light much of whats odd in the global fair trade system. However, I have found a near absent momentum on the environmental implications of this tragedy.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York was an unprecedented environmental assault. Such man-made attacks on infrastructure are usually not accounted for when assessing environmental threats. The attacks generated more than 1.2 million tons of debris comprised of asbestos, polyphenols, etc.  A massive fire was also part of the happening. These accounted for poor air quality. Large quantities of glass, dust and pulverised cement spewed into the air. Pollutants were exposed in three separate cases. Firstly, the collapse of the buildings left high intensity peak pollution discharges. Then, the fire from the crash exacerbated the level of pollution. The resuspension of asbestos, dust, pulverised cement and fiberglass were reissued into the atmosphere during the cleaning up process. Within a few months, the air around ground zero was cleaned up. Post 9/11, indoor pollution became a problem as many buildings and their ventilations were not properly cleaned.

The massive amount of debris caused a waste disposal challenge for the city of New York.  The water ways could possibly have been blocked by the immense amount of debris.  However, the debris was taken to Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The debris was segregated by bio-medical teams. Human remains were identified while many remains could not be identified. Families of victims who have not found solid evidence of their loved ones claimed that the possibility of tracing remains are diminished with disposal.

There has been a renewed understanding of the risk of cancer to 9/11 workers and survivors in the area. In a recent study the 9/11 health registry showed that the incidents of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and multiple myeloma were significantly higher amongst recovery workers. The Center for Disease Control revealed in a study that many of the 9/11 rescue workers were found to have carbon nanotubes in their lungs. Even now, serious respiratory ailments mar the lives of those exposed to ground zero dust. About 70,000 people may have to endure stress disorder as a result of the trauma.

This is the story of New York, the capital of the world.  While terrorist forces are responsible for 9/11, the monstrosity of man, muscle and money are to blame for our atrocity. The possibility of a rehabilitation package and rethinking the global fair trade system from many different angles with expertise is welcome. However, will justice be served if the environmental impact is not given heed?

The dust it has caused in the surrounding areas is not negligible. The industrial areas of Savar already endure poor air quality. The collapse of a nine storey building, housing several readymade garments industries, comprised of production material. The debris consists of building materials of all sorts, machineries, both heavy and light, and volumes of output from the machinery. Chemicals and dyes have also been spewed. The remnants from corpses emit an unbearable stench. 

The toxic waste of the debris and its adequate disposal is also a matter of contention.  Where has this waste gone? There have been some reports of filling the sides of the nearby rivers with the remains of Rana Plaza. Wherever an empty plot is found, the debris is dumped.

There is no planned manner of dumping the wastage. Locals claim that as the debris solidifies in a year or so, it will serve as a foundation to build new structures. Can we really afford to build landfill like this? The debris should be a major problem for the authorities in the normalisation process of the area and if it does not, then the scale of concern over waste control and pollution is valid.

The environmental health aspect is even more worrisome. It has been heard that rescue workers have developed respiratory problems due to the dust and odor in the area. If there is any insurance scheme brought out for the health of these workers, the long term respiratory problems should be addressed. There are plenty of survivors who are facing a myriad of illnesses and will be enduring disabilities. Concern lies in understanding how Bangladesh will tackle problems that will arise from this fiasco, five or ten years down the line.

Is holistic justice too much to demand, when the mere safety of work place cannot be guaranteed? The inter-linkages between poverty, development and environment are all too vivid to avoid. It is time we begin to address the plague of negligence which has tarred our souls for too long.  History does not avoid itself.