Knocking on Wood

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The tropical hardwood that the city transit authority recently used to rebuild part of the subway system was forested from rare African jungles and supports illegal arms trafficking, charged several local environmental organizations last week. And that’s not the worse of it–the environmentalists also claim that the hardwood purchases could be supporting al Qaeda, the terrorist group thought to be behind the World Trade Center disaster.

“Tens of thousands of ties bought by New York City Transit originated in Liberia, where the funds for these logs are being funneled by the dictator, Charles Taylor, into illegal arms trafficking,” said Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, a small Brooklyn-based nonprofit. “And even, potentially, to diamond purchases from al Qaeda.”

In December 2000, New York City Transit bought 30,000 ekki subway track ties to replace an aging infrastructure. According to Rainforest Relief, which seeks to preserve rare tropical forests by lobbying municipalities and companies to use alternatives to tropical hardwoods, the ekki timbers can be traced back through several intermediaries to a Liberian company called the Oriental Timber Corporation.

Controlled by Liberian President Taylor, Oriental Timber was accused by a special United Nations panel in 2000 of involvement “in a variety of illicit activities, and large amounts of the proceeds are used to pay for extra-budgetary activities including the acquisition of weapons.” Most damningly, Taylor and OTC were named by a Washington Post story last November as players in a scheme involving al Qaeda that launders money through the sale of diamonds.

Transit officials would not respond to detailed questions about the timber purchase, simply stating, “The reason we are using ekki wood is because it lasts in the subway environment for a period of 50 years as opposed to 25 years for other types of wood.”

Still, Keating and other environmentalists insist there are viable alternatives to using tropical hardwoods for subway ties. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, recently bought 40,000 recycled fiberglass and Styrofoam ties for use in an ongoing subway reconstruction project. While city spokespeople argue that those ties aren’t durable enough for the city’s heavier subway cars, Chicago’s supplier, Pollywood, told City Limits their ties can even handle freight trains.

Rainforest Relief has had some success in its lobbying efforts. The group convinced legislators in California and on Long Island to pass laws banning the purchase of tropical hardwoods. They’re hoping to do the same in New York City–City Council Speaker Gifford Miller recently introduced the “Good Wood” bill, which mandates that the city contract only with timber companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. (OTC is not certified.)

“We hope we can get it passed,” said Joan Roney of Rainforest Relief: “We think that taxpayers will speak up if they realize they’re supporting, at least indirectly, the very terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center.”