US Joins Global Effort by Curbing Some but Not All Exports of Waste
TEN-THOUSAND barrels of mercury waste to South Africa. A shipload of scrap computers to the Philippines. More than 3,000 tons of steel furnace dust (labeled ``fertilizer'') to Bangladesh. Thousands of tons of incinerator ash dumped on a beach in Haiti.
The export of poisonous wastes has become a major international issue in recent years. As disposal and treatment costs have gone up in developed countries, manufacturers increasingly have looked to Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe as cheap places to unload their environmental problems. And with less regulation and enforcement - and an eagerness to receive hard currency - such countries sometimes have been willing recipients.
But what has been called ``toxic colonialism'' may be coming to an end as nations and international groups work to stop the trade in highly polluting waste.
The Clinton administration this week announced its support for a qualified ban on the export of hazardous waste, which has amounted to about 150,000 tons a year from this country. Acknowledging that ``the current policy can put people in other countries at risk of dangerous exposures to toxic materials,'' Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner says, ``This is a moral issue.''
Five years ago, a United Nations-sponsored meeting in Basel, Switzerland, set the groundwork for regulating the trade in hazardous materials. Since then, 103 countries have banned imports of such materials, and 13 of 24 industrially advanced nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have announced support for an export ban.
But that left what critics call the ``sinister seven'' - those countries (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, Britain, and the United States) resisting calls for an export ban.
Greenpeace, the most aggressive environmental group on trade and dumping of hazardous wastes, has cataloged more than 500 attempts to export more than 200 million tons of waste from OECD members to non-OECD nations since the 1989 meeting in Basel.
Of that amount, 5.3 million tons have been dumped abroad, reports Jim Puckett of Greenpeace, who nonetheless calls this ``the tip of the iceberg.''
In recent years, many exporters have sought to categorize hazardous waste as material to be recycled. But this makes critics suspicious.
``We have seen how `recycling' is just another excuse for dumping,'' says Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) of New York, author of proposed legislation that would ban the export of toxic waste.
Referring to the recent discovery of mercury wastes shipped from the US to South Africa, Mr. Towns says: ``The workers in the South African plant, as well as the residents of the black township downstream, are just as poisoned by this `recycling' as they would have been by careless smelting.''
THIS month, countries that have signed the Basel Convention pact on regulating hazardous wastes will meet again to consider stiffer actions.
The Clinton administration announcement this week is meant to prompt action there as well as boost legislation limiting exports from the US.
The White House announcement came from Vice President Al Gore Jr., a longtime critic of toxic-waste exports. But it is not a complete ban. It allows continued exports to Canada and Mexico. It does not cover ``safe, recyclable wastes such as plastics, textiles, and paper.''
The Clinton proposal also allows export to those countries where ``the level of environmental protection is at least as high as in the United States, taking into account innovative technologies and transportation risks.'' And it allows export of such wastes for recycling to OECD countries through a five-year phaseout period.
``We think the new [US] position is a sea change from the previous administration,'' says Nick Morgan of Greenpeace. ``But we're alarmed by the loopholes.''
Legislation proposed by Towns is stricter in that waste exports to Canada and Mexico would end as well.
Many of those pushing for an end to hazardous-waste exports see the issue as similar to the effort to promote ``environmental justice'' in the US, that is, an end to the disproportionate placement of toxic industries and dumps in minority communities. Of the 31 cosponsors of the Towns bill, 16 are black or Hispanic.
``We do not need the reputation of being a `toxic colonialist,' '' Towns says.
Those pushing a complete ban see it as a way to reduce toxic wastes at the source.
``In our country, we have an expression: `Not in my backyard,' '' Ms. Browner told an international gathering of legislators who focus on environmental issues. ``My motto is: `Not in anybody's backyard.' Let's not produce the hazardous waste in the first place.''