NEW YORK - Election-year interparty political wrangling is threatening to again sabotage congressional efforts to provide medical help for tens of thousands of firefighters and other first responders whose health was damaged by the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Centre.
As of June 2010, 836 of those who worked at Ground Zero have died and an estimated 70 percent of the more than 70,000 first responders have declared illnesses they say are related to the dust and other toxins present at the World Trade Centre site during and after the attacks.
This week, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are poised to introduce virtually identical versions of the "James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act" that would provide long-term and health care and monitoring for people whose health has been compromised.
But in both Houses, Republicans are threatening to filibuster the measure because they say it adds billions of dollars to the federal deficit without any attempt at cost- cutting elsewhere.
The Republicans successfully blocked the measure last year on the same grounds, charging that it would create a new entitlement programme and waste taxpayer dollars. Republicans also objected to the inclusion of undocumented workers who helped respond to the disaster and clean up 9/11 sites.
In addition, in the Senate, Democrats have included the legislation in a bill containing an amendment that would end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military.
Another amendment would give children of illegal immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship if they serve in the armed services or attend college.
Republicans in Congress are overwhelmingly opposed to both these policy choices.
But some Democratic sources say that if the Senate can muster the three-fifths vote - 60 senators - to break the filibuster, a majority would vote for the bill.
The legislation has drawn strong support from a wide range of individuals and organisations, including human rights advocates.
Sharon Singh, media relations director for Amnesty International USA, told IPS, "Amnesty International urges Congress to pass H.R. 847 as it would be a strong step to fulfilling the right of victims of crimes to reparations. This includes medical care and compensation."
"The U.S. government needs to remember the people who put their lives in jeopardy and are involved in rescue, recovery and clean up endeavours," she said.
"Nine years later, it is time to move beyond the rhetoric of being in 'solidarity' with victims and act. The U.S. government needs to actually pass the laws and adequately fund the programmes that victims need," she said.
Detective James Zadroga, for whom the bill is named, was identified in 2006 as the first rescuer to die from inhaling dust at ground zero. However, the city's medical examiner concluded that his death was not directly related to the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. Nevertheless, his name remains on the legislation.
One of the most vocal among groups supporting the legislation is an organisation known as "9/11 Health Now." In a statement, the group said, "On Sep. 11, 2001, tens of thousands of Americans converged on New York City's World Trade Center site in the most impassioned rescue and recovery effort in the history of the country."
"Unbeknownst to these American patriots, the conditions at Ground Zero - in spite of federal and state warnings to the contrary - were exceedingly toxic: hundreds of contaminants, including asbestos, lead, mercury and benzene - to name a few - were present in unprecedentedly high levels, both within the billowing dust cloud that settled over Lower Manhattan and the surrounding areas, and in the emissions from the Pile that smoldered for months afterward during the nine-month recovery and cleanup operation," the group declared.
It characterised as "mind-boggling" what it called "the lack of protection offered to First Responders, volunteers and recovery personnel at the site: the majority were issued a paper dust mask, or - more commonly - no protection at all."
At the time, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that at Ground Zero "the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink."
Now, the group says, "More than nine years after the disaster, huge numbers of first responders, plus their fellow exposed New Yorkers are grievously ill. Afflictions range from chronic bronchial disease to asbestosis, leukemia and cancers, plus a host of other diseases including systemic organ failure."
It adds that "The combined poisons of the dust and emissions are now widely considered to be one of the most toxic combinations in the history of U.S. disaster relief, affecting not only First Responders, but hundreds of thousands of residents, workers and students of Lower Manhattan and the surrounding areas who returned to homes, jobsites and schools which- shockingly - received little or no government-mandated cleanup."
The World Trade Centre Health Registry estimates that 410,000 people have been "heavily exposed" to WTC toxins, including first responders, and "may become seriously ill in the future".
The legislation is supported by members of the New York and New Jersey Congressional delegations, including some Republicans, and by the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
The legislation would ensure that every 9/11 responder exposed to the toxins of Ground Zero and related sites has a right to be medically monitored, and that every 9/11 responder who is sick as a result of exposure has a right to treatment.
It also provides for care to be expanded to the exposed community, including residents, area workers, students, and the thousands of people who came from across the country in response to the 9/11 attacks.
The 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund would be reopened to provide compensation for economic loss and damages.
The legislation would continue funding and support of the 'Centres of Excellence' in New York and New Jersey, which currently provide monitoring, support and care to first responders.
It would also establish a research and support programme by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the diagnosis and treatment of WTC-related conditions and diseases.