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Tricks of the Trade for Unloading Garbage

JORGE ILLUECA knows some of the tricks used by garbage exporters looking for cheap dumping grounds in the developing world. ``The main technique is to dress up their projects as economic development plans,'' says Dr. Illueca, an environmental adviser for the Panamanian government.

Last year, for instance, a US firm proposed building an incinerator in Panama - to burn one-third of New York City's garbage. The company, International Energy Resources, said the plant would pump more than $12 million a year into the local economy and create jobs for 600 people. It was no coincidence, Illueca says, that the proposed site of Colon is in one of the nation's most economically depressed regions.

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Under the scheme, up to 9,000 tons of US garbage could have been shipped to the facility every day. But Illueca, who reviews such projects, spotted unusual elements. For instance, the plan called for generating electricity with the heat from the plant, even though engineers assured him that this would be technically impossible.

He also learned that garbage would start flowing to Panama three months after the contract was signed - years before an incinerator could possibly be built. ``[The company] then told me that the waste would be put in a landfill to generate methane gas,'' he says, which could then be sold or used to burn later shipments of garbage.

The plan was turned down last summer, but only after Panama's minister of health, Francisco Sanchez, threatened to resign if the proposal was accepted. Meanwhile, the US firm is now back, pressing a revised version of the same deal, Illueca says.

Such episodes underscore a dilemma for environmental agencies in developing countries. If they're constantly put on the spot - forced to battle against waste-export deals that look good at the bottom line - they could come to be seen as standing in the way of economic development.

``We need more cooperation from the side of the exporters - it's that simple,'' Illueca says.

The pressure on individual officials to accept waste-export deals can be enormous. Illueca, a member of Panama's delegation to this week's meeting here on hazardous waste exports, says he was once offered a beach house if he would agree to approve a project. He turned it down. The plan called for importing huge piles of incinerator ash from the US - which analysis showed carried high levels of highly toxic dioxin. Panama classifies all waste, including household garbage and incinerator ash, as hazardous.

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