Burning Mad in Guyana

A SCHEME TO use industrial wastes imported from the United States as fuel for a proposed electrical power plant has sparked a major political battle in the small South American country of Guyana.

The plant, a joint venture of the Guyanese government and two U.S. firms, would burn a number of chemical waste products from the U. S. and other countries, including lubricating oils, paint sludge and waste from the cosmetic industry.

The joint venture, Guyana Resource Corp., would earn revenue from both power production and fees from firms seeking a way to dispose of their waste products.

Two California-based companies, Pott Industries and Texeira Farms Inc. are investing in the project, and currently own two- thirds of GRC, according to officials of the two firms. The companies reportedly have spent about $200,000 so far on the project.

Pott, primarily an agricultural firm, is also involved in the refining of petroleum. Texeira is the 17th largest agribusiness corporation in the United States and a major supplier for McDonald's Corp. Officials from the two companies openly admit the Guyanese project is an attempt to sidestep U.S. environmental regulations. Guyana has no environmental laws.

"In the United States you have a . . . long lag before the permits are issued to build facilities," Michael Connors, a GRC director, recently told the Journal of Commerce. "The federal law is complex, and then you have state and local laws."

Donald Bright, an engineer for Pott Industries, said the plant is projected to burn over 60,000 tons of waste a year when completed. GRC officials said they expect the project to be finished this year. According to Bright, the project site will include space to stockpile up to five million gallons of liquid waste, enough to fuel the plant for at least six months.

Waste used by the facility need not be limited to oils and paints, Bright indicated. The plant will be designed to use whatever is "pumpable and [will] burn," he said.

GRC officials claim the project will assist the government-owned Guyana Electricity Corp. by providing power at a cheaper cost than a conventional oil-fired plant. The government utility has experienced severe financial difficulties in recent years. Guyanese officials hope the venture will provide needed capital for other development projects, such as a proposed shrimp agriculture station, a slaughterhouse and a plant for processing sugar cane residue into ethanol.

But critics of the plant, including the main opposition party, the Working People's Alliance, worry that Guyana will be used as a dumping ground for hazardous wastes. Although GRC has said it will not accept radioactive or chemically toxic wastes, critics question that promise.

Pat Costner, a researcher for Greenpeace International, argues that the kinds of wastes GRC plans to bring to Guyana are bound to contain trace quantities of such hazardous compounds as polychlorinated byphenals and dioxin. Costner said that when she questioned officials from Pott Industries on the subject, they admitted this to be true. GRC has not yet established a maximum permissible limit for the contaminants, she added.

According to Costner, the company also has not designed any pollution control devices for the project, and has no plans for removing the ash remaining after the wastes are incinerated. Instead, she said, GRC plans to bury the ash on site in a 50- acre landfill.

Josh Ramsammy, a biologist familiar with environmental issues in the Caribbean, argues that it will be impossible to keep smoke and fumes from the plant from spreading over the nearby Linden community, due to weather conditions that are impossible to predict.

In response to these and other concerns, the two U.S. firms say they have commissioned independent laboratories to test the waste. The Guyanese government says it will also analyze the waste at its Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Georgetown, the country's capital city. GRC has also offered to pay for scientific observers to inspect existing waste- incineration plants in Denmark and the United States.

But some potential clients of the project have apparently had doubts about its feasibility. A California firm, Professional Resource Management Corp., had originally planned to ship wastes to Guyana, but later withdrew from the project, sending a letter of complaint to the Guyanese embassy.

"We did not believe it was appropriate for us to be involved in that project," a spokesman for the company said. He would not elaborate. In an effort to rally public support for the controversial project, GRC recently sponsored an elaborate festival, called "Energy Week," in Guyana.

But opposition continues to mount. Open Word, an opposition newsletter in Georgetown, recently editorialized against the plant. "The official attitude," the newsletter complained, "is not to worry; no cause for alarm ... There are famous cases in the U.S.A., the home of the largest stores of industrial waste, in which the officials behaved in the same way until the people caught up with them."

Critics of the Guyana project note that the plant is only part of a growing trend by developed nations to export industrial waste to Third World countries. Last year, ministers of the Caribbean Community of Nations (CARICOM) voiced their objections to use of the Caribbean Basin as such a dumping ground.

"The region, including its seas, should not be used for the dumping of toxic and other waste by foreign interests," an official CARICOM statement declared.

The Belizian government reacted with similar anger when press reports last year indicated that Belize might accept the unwanted contents of the notorious New York "garbage barge" for an electrical generation project.

"We need to resist the blandishments, born of arrogance, that suggest that because we are poor ... we are prey to the promise of get-rich-quick schemes," a Belizian official said at the time.

-Elizabeth Hax