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Dumping on Africa: West exports its industrial wastes

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Children have been playing on a mountain of ash on the island of Kassa off Conakry, capital of the West African nation of Guinea. This is not unusual in a third-world country, where scavenging garbage can be a means of survival. The waste on Kassa, however, is unlikely to yield anything but danger. It is toxic incinerator ash - transported from Philadelphia.

In recent years, as industrialized countries have begun running out of economical means of disposing of industrial and municipal wastes, they are finding it financially attractive to ship them to developing countries.

``Dumping on the third world is a response to the economics of waste disposal,'' says Jim Vallette of the environmental organization Greenpeace in Washington. ``The cost has increased tremendously as regulations have tightened and landfills have decreased.''

The dumping of toxic waste in the third world has become a touchy political issue. ``There's a great deal of sensitivity when industrial countries send their waste to countries that lack the technology and infrastructure to accept and treat it,'' says an official of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Philadelphia's deputy streets commissioner, Bruce Gledhill, says his city did not itself make the choice to ship its ash to Guinea. ``The two companies that proposed to do business with us proposed out-of-country solutions. ... Philadelphia is obligated to look at the least costly means of disposal as long as they are legal and environmentally sound.'' He says receiving countries must draw up and enforce their own regulations for handling wastes. ``I cannot be someone else's government. I would never suggest anything less than full disclosure and full guidelines on how materials should be used.''

The Guinean government has demanded that the ash on Kassa be removed by the Norwegian company that dumped it, and a ship is on its way to do so. Mr. Gledhill says Philadelphia has just signed a contract to dispose of its waste for the next 6 years in Pennsylvania landfills.

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