Still, several states were immediately interested. "If somebody comes to you and says, 'Do you want 1,300 subway cars and we'll put them on the site¿free,' that's tough to turn down," says Dery Bennett, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group. Artificial reef building is largely privately funded, and the New York subway cars offered an opportunity to increase the current artificial reefs considerably. These reefs attract recreational fishing and diving and consequently bring business, boosting the local economies.
The MTA initially proposed the plan last September, and the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife offered to take 650 cars. When it became public that the cars contained asbestos, however, New Jersey eventually backed out. In April, the state's acting governor, Donald DiFrancesco, said, "While I strongly support the artificial reef program, I believe we must err on the side of safety and the environment." Maryland volunteered to take the cars intended for New Jersey but then turned them down as well. In June, Delaware decided to take 400 of the cars, and according to Zacchea, plans are under way to begin sinking them there in mid- to late August.
"We learned about the asbestos-containing materials that were in the cars and began raising concerns," Zipf says. "We felt that in light of the lack of real assessment and in light of the fact that there have been studies that raise concerns about asbestos in aquatic life, the project should be withheld until we establish a good standard." Kristen Milligan, a staff scientist at Clean Ocean Action, agrees. "If we inhale or ingest asbestos fibers, they can get lodged in our tissue, and that forms lesions and then can lead to cancer or emphysema or corrosion of our membranes," she says. "The same things can happen to marine life."
Muir does not see a risk from the subway cars. "Since it's not airborne, is it as much of an issue? The answer is no," he says. "When they did studies on water impacts from asbestos, it took hundreds and hundreds of millions of fibers per liter to see lesions in fish. We've had that happen, by the way, in an asbestos mining operation in the Midwest. We found some lesions in fish. But we're talking about thousands of times higher concentrations than our regulatory limit." That limit¿seven million fibers per liter¿is the drinking water standard. When Muir investigated a sunken ship that contained asbestos, he found a concentration of 100 fibers per liter. "That's roughly a million times below what it would need to be for actual aquatic impact," he says.
But environmentalists like Zipf believe that ships and tanks, which corrode much more slowly than the subway cars, are not a valid point of reference. "It's just apples and oranges," she says, "to compare that exposure to marine life to quickly-corroding subway cars where the actual asbestos-containing material becomes the structure on which the animals are growing." According to Muir, the asbestos-containing material is unlikely to dissolve or enter the food chain. "Normally you think of asbestos in terms of these flaky ceiling tiles or powdery white substance," he says. "In the case of the subway cars, think in terms of black asphalt material. It's not friable unless it were ground up and a torch was put to it. There is no mechanism really for it to be released."
Environmentalists say that's too short. "Are we trying to restore a breach in a tropical coral reef, which we might expect to live for thousands of years, by placing limestone in the breach? No, we're not," Tinsman says. "We're trying to support a blue mussel community. These are very short-lived organisms. Every year this community is renewed by settling of new, juvenile mussels. It's not something where we're waiting for decades for coral heads to grow on this material. This is a different kind of community, and we consider the subway cars to be perfectly adequate for a reef material, despite the criticism we've gotten."