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Exporting Cancer

United States

new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989

Dangerous industrial wastes are a headache for some and big business for others.
Exporting cancer
The refuse of industrial society threatens both our health and
the environment. Waste disposal is a challenge but it's also big
business. Dick Russell reports on the latest corporate tactic -
dump it on unsuspecting Third World peoples.

The Marshall Islands, a string of 33 small atolls in the South Pacific are a long way from the United States. But they are no stranger to American 'exports'. Nearly 40 years ago, residents of Eniwetok, Bikini and Rongelap were evacuated after their homes were contaminated by radiation from US nuclear weapons. There were 43 bombs exploded on Eniwetok alone, making it the world's largest nuclear waste dump. The American weapons-testing program has left islanders with a legacy of cancer and misery.

By 1990 the Marshalls could become host to another form of American waste. Dan Fleming, 'owner-lobbyist' of the Admiralty Pacific company of Seattle has received preliminary approval from the Marshalls' Government to 'augment' the atolls with 10 per cent of the US West Coast's municipal garbage. The deal could be worth $56 million by 1995.

Fleming argues that 25 million tons of solid waste will raise the elevation of the low-lying atolls and lessen the impact of the greenhouse effect'. Otherwise, he warns, rising sea levels due to global warming could drown the Marshalls.

This byzantine 'trade-off' is touted in Admiralty Pacific's proposal as a 'win-win solution' to the industrialized world's problem of industrial waste disposal. Should other US states or other countries become interested, Admiralty predicts its waste exports could increase tenfold. For now though, the company is projecting $27 million in profits in its first year of dumping US garbage on the Marshalls.

Like all municipal waste this so-called 'non-toxic, non-hazardous' material will be laden with potential carcinogens: heavy metals, cleaning fluid, solvents, lead-based paints, motor oil and pesticides. Since the main water sources on the islands are aquifers just beneath the sub-soil, the poisonous liquids will easily leach into the water supply.

'These hazardous materials are the same chemicals that have caused severe health problems at Love Canal and other dump-sites in the US and Europe,' says Steve Lester of the Virginia-based Citizen's Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes. 'Most of these poisons affect the central nervous system and liver. And many cause cancer, above all cancer of the liver.'

This new 'garbage imperialism' is a burgeoning business. So much so that 39 countries, from Barbados to Zimbabwe, recently declared their territories off-limits to foreign wastes. But in many regions the damage has already been done. Tighter regulations governing domestic waste disposal have put landfill costs through the roof. Rates in the US are between $250 and $300 per ton; in Africa costs can be a mere $20 a ton.

The same is true in Western Europe, where many nations now require that carcinogenic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) undergo high-temperature incineration at a price of $2,000 a ton. So it is sorely tempting to Find another source - for a $100-a-month pay-off you might be able to store 10,000 drums of hazardous wastes in someone's backyard in Nigeria.

That is precisely what happened in the backwater port of Koko on the Benin River, where ocean-going ships generally dock only a few times a year. Between August 1987 and May 1988, five ships dumped almost 4.000 tons of toxic waste in an illegal arrangement between Italian businessmen and local officials.

The wastes were hauled by Italy's Ecomar and Jelly Wax companies and labeled as substances 'relating to the building trade'. The leaking barrels were stacked near a schoolyard off Koko's one paved street. No one was told what was in them (PCBs and radioactive waste). By the time they were discovered last spring, unsuspecting villagers had emptied some barrels to store drinking water.

In response to the incident, Nigeria briefly recalled its ambassador from Italy and seized two Italian vessels, pressuring the Italian Government to remove the wastes. Italy agreed to remove the wastes but not the contaminated soil. In the meantime, seven premature births occurred in just two weeks last July in Koko. And doctors report significantly higher rates of cholera in the little port where children run barefoot through the oil palm plantations.

This was not the first time that Italy's Jelly Wax outfit had run foul of another nation's 'toxic sovereignty'. In April 1987, one of its vessels left 2,000 tons of poisonous wastes in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. For six months, according to the Venezuelan Government, 'the drums of waste leaked, were in constant danger of explosion and presented serious health hazards to the local population.' Beaches near the dump-site were closed. Residents complained of sores and at least one boy died after coming into contact with the barrels. Venezuela finally ordered the wastes to be returned to Italy. A Cypriot cargo ship retrieved the barrels, then unloaded them in Syria in December, 1987.

Such incidents have sparked outrage in the Third World. Nigerian officials, now prosecuting 15 people involved in the Koko dumping, recently warned that anyone caught importing toxic waste will face the firing squad. Venezuela has banned all waste imports.

Last March, representatives from more than 100 countries met in Switzerland to hammer out a treaty restricting hazardous waste shipments across borders. The treaty requires waste shippers to notify and receive consent from receiving countries ahead of time. It also requires nations exporting or receiving wastes to insure they are ultimately discarded in an environmentally sound manner.

Major Western waste-producing nations refused to sign the treaty, calling for further study. African nations also refused to sign, claiming the treaty doesn't go far enough. One clause initially called for a prohibition on waste exports to countries with less strict waste-disposal policies. This would have effectively halted waste traffic to cash-strapped countries desperate for hard currency. According to African officials, the clause was removed under pressure from both the US and West Germany.

A Greenpeace study found more than 3.6 million tons of hazardous wastes were shipped from the West to the Third World between 1986 and 1988. Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have joined with environmental groups in Malaysia and Kenya to form the International Toxic Waste Action Network (ITWAN). This umbrella group is working closely with the United Nations, pressing for a total ban on what it calls 'toxic terrorism'.

The NCTB company of New Jersey has applied to build a transfer station in Brooklyn, New York to load 1,000 cubic yards a day of asbestos onto a Panamanian ship for delivery to Guatemala. Neil Gorfinkle of the White Lung Association (a citizen's group campaigning on behalf of workers suffering from asbestosis) believes the material is emanating from asbestos clean-up sites. Because of the heavy volume, he doubts the company's claim that it is for re-use in the manufacture of brake linings.

The California-based Global Telesis Corporation
wants to build a $38 million hazardous waste disposal plant in Oro province, Papua New Guinea. Plans call for 600,000 metric tons to be imported monthly. The local government would receive $60 per metric ton.

Most Western nations have so far looked the other way. A policy statement by the British Government notes that a ban on waste exports 'may be resented by developing countries which have legitimate trading interest [there are] good environmental and economic reasons for some international movement of waste.'

The United Kingdom is currently under investigation by the European Commission for failing to implement EEC directives controlling the international hazardous waste trade. Last November, two reporters for the London Sunday Times, posing as chemical company representatives, approached an English waste-broker firm, Redell Development. The company's director, Charles Deck, reportedly offered to get rid of any type of hazardous waste for $800 a ton. He said he had a suitable ship that could transport the waste, falsely labeled as liquid fertilizer, to an illegal dump-site in Liberia.

'We don't want to know what is really on board,' Deck was quoted as saying. 'You can give us a false invoice on false-headed paper. Nobody will ask any questions. We have about 50 local officials who we pay each month to keep their mouths shut. Even if it is radioactive, it doesn't matter.' Asked about possible threats to health and environment, Deck reportedly responded: 'If anything happens to the Africans because of the waste, that's too bad. It's not our problem.'

The UK is also a major waste importer. Disposal fees are much lower than those across the Channel. Britain imports wastes from at least 16 countries - between 1982 and 1987 imported waste from Europe shot up from 5.000 tons annually to 250,000 tons. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's husband Dennis sits on the board of one of the country's largest waste import firms, Attwoods, whose 1989 earnings are likely to reach $45 million. In 1987 the British Chemical Inspectorate reported that local authorities and waste disposal agencies frequently receive no advance notice of the contents or destination of imported waste. Last September it was revealed that Air Canada has been exporting PCB wastes aboard regular passenger flights between Toronto and London.

'Hazardous waste moving in international commerce simply goes to the areas of least regulation and enforcement,' according to Hugh Kaufman, assistant administrator in the hazardous waste division of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 'You can write as many laws as you want. but what do you do when the cops aren't on the corner'? In the Reagan administration the cops appeared to be on the take from the robbers. In the Bush Administration at this point, there are no cops.

Although some developing countries have begun jailing offenders, the toxic traffic shows little sign of abating. As Greenpeace researcher Ann Leonard says: 'The waste trade has got to be stopped completely. It threatens the populations and environments of the importing country and acts as a disincentive for waste prevention in the country of export. Most importantly. it's a moral issue: it exploits Third World nations by making them choose between poison and poverty.'

Dick Russell writes from Boston on environmental issues.

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Cleaning up the dumps
When Lois Gibbs moved into her house in Niagara Falls, New York in the mid 1970s she was a housewife and mother. But Love Canal, the environmental disaster that transformed the way the world looked at hazardous wastes, also transformed Lois Gibbs.

She became a community organizer, a spokeswoman for victims of corporate polluters and a role model for citizen activists all over the US.

In 1978 she spotted a newspaper article looking at the problem of chemicals buried by the Hooker Chemical Company in her community. There was a list of health effects from some of the toxics involved: damage to the central nervous system, liver damage, blood disease and immune system problems.

'It was like the light bulb went on in my head.' she says. Her son's ailments (seizures and a low white blood cell count) began to make sense. She was determined to remove him from the school that sat on top of the dump site. When she went door-to-door with a petition to close the school, the nightmare of Love Canal began to sink in. House after house told of frightening diseases, miscarriages and deformities. Few families were untouched. Gibbs' battle to close the school became a fight to save her family and her neighbors from slow poisoning.

Together they formed the Love Canal Homeowners' Association and battled local, state and national authorities as well as the Hooker Chemical Company. In late 1980 the organizing paid off when the US Government agreed to buy the homes of 900 Love Canal families.

Today Lois Gibbs and her Citizen's Clearing-house for Hazardous Wastes is helping to foster a grassroots movement to save other American backyards from similar toxic disasters. The Clearinghouse, which is based in a small house in Arlington. Virginia, works through five field offices and 4,500 volunteer community groups. Gibbs and her colleagues tackle a variety of issues involving the impact of chemical waste dumping and safe alternative disposal methods. It's a crisis center helping communities understand the health effects of toxic exposure and the legal liability of corporations. But more importantly it helps them fight back.

Love Canal did much to raise public consciousness about the dangers of hazardous waste and Lois Gibbs is continuing the battle. 'We have had hundreds and hundreds of victories,' she says. 'People in this country are beating back corporate polluters and forcing them to clean up. And they are also forcing governments to sit up and listen.'

Ellen Hosmer

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New Internationalist issue 198 magazine cover This article is from the August 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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