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United States Representative Vito Fossella (NY 13th District) requested the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provide assistance in determining the cause and nature of an incident that occurred at the Fresh Kills landfill on May 7, 1998.

Reports indicate that landfill personnel at or near a barge unloading area were overcome during routine operations, apparently by an unknown airborne substance or substances [ 1, 2]. The same reports indicate that several emergency responders who attempted to aid the workers were overcome as well.

The Fresh Kills landfill complex, covering over 2200 acres, is one of the largest municipal landfills operating in the United States. Located on the western shore of Staten Island, the landfill complex has been the subject of numerous environmental health studies and evaluations [ 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. ATSDR has been involved in some of these past evaluations and is currently developing a Public Health Assessment of the Fresh Kills and Brookfield Avenue landfills on Staten Island.

Municipal solid waste operations of New York City Department of Sanitation include collection routes in all five boroughs of the city. On Staten Island, refuse is collected by trucks and transported directly to the Fresh Kills landfill. Collection routes in the other boroughs of the city go to transfer stations where waste is loaded onto barges which then transport the waste to the Fresh Kills complex. When a barge of refuse arrives at the Fresh Kills complex, it is scheduled for docking at one of two barge unloading facilities, both located along interior waterways of the landfill property. At an unloading zone, a barge is tied up alongside a concrete unloading platform. A crane is used to move waste from the barge onto the concrete platform; then the waste is transferred from the platform into landfill haul trucks and the trucks transport the waste to the working face. At the working face, the waste is off-loaded from the haul trucks, compacted, and then covered with fill material at the end of the work shift.

Due to the topography of the landfill, several sections of fill material rise to elevations of 100 feet or more above the surrounding wetlands and waterways. The barge unloading zones adjacent to the interior waterways of the Fresh Kills complex are in low-lying areas. Reports [ 2, 9] indicate that the workers affected in the May 7 incident were in one of these low-lying areas in or near one of the barge unloading zones. Reportedly, excavated landfill material was being deposited near the unloading zone at the time of the incident [9].

National Weather Service records were obtained from the Newark New Jersey airport for May 7, 1998 [10]. The Newark airport is approximately eight miles from the Fresh Kills landfill. The meteorology data indicated that stable to slightly unstable atmospheric conditions were present at the Fresh Kills landfill on the morning of May 7, 1998. These conditions may have contributed to the development of the incident.

Following is a discussion of two approaches ATSDR took to investigate the incident. First, ATSDR considered the limited amount of air sampling data available from the incident and evaluated the data for potential public health impacts. Second, ATSDR evaluated reports of the health effects experienced by workers and, using knowledge of previous incidents at other facilities where workers have been overcome similar to the Fresh Kills incident, developed hypotheses as to the potential causes of the incident and the potential public health consequences.

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