October 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 10
B O O K R E V I E W
Global Dumping Ground
Based on their investigative work, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and Bill Moyers explain how hazardous waste exporters legally and illegally ship industrial by-products and other toxic waste, much of which is banned for use in the United States, to unsuspecting Third World countries. By showing Mexican children bathing in polluted waters, Brazilian workers suffering the effects of lead poisoning, and Nigerian villagers dying from PCB-contaminated rice, CIR and Moyers demonstrate how U.S. toxic exports cause irreparable harm to the environment and injure and kill Third World citizens. They found that this inherently dangerous business results from weak workplace and environmental regulations in the Third World and the desire to avoid high disposal costs in the United States.
The hazardous waste trade is fuelled by mounting piles of toxic waste generated by the soap, plastics, pesticides, medicines, fertilizers and explosives industries. This deadly cargo consists of toxic substances such as dioxins, organic chemicals, heavy metals, PCBs and cyanide. CIR and Moyers point out that the United States generates more than one ton of hazardous waste annually for every man, woman and child. As a result, they explain, "Both criminals and legitimate entrepreneurs sense handsome profits from this excess of hazardous waste, from steering the flow of harmful substances along the path of least resistance toward what they hope will be a final resting place."
The authors argue that U.S. environmental regulations have functioned to encourage the exportation of hazardous waste. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act specifies that a company is responsible for its hazardous waste even after it is disposed of in U.S. landfills. But when a broker exports the waste to a foreign country, the responsibility is also exported.
Global Dumping Ground demonstrates the reluctance of Third World countries to receive the industrialized countries' waste by recounting the widely publicized saga of the Khian Sea, one "poison ship" in a "seeming armada of toxic vessels unleashed by the developed world in the late 1980s." In June 1986, loaded with 13,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia, the Khian Sea headed for the Bahamas, where Amalgamated Shipping Corp., the ship's owner, claimed the government had agreed to accept the ash. But when the ship arrived at Ocean Cay in the Bahamas, the Bahamas' Ministry of Health denied it permission to unload. The Khian Sea set sail, embarking on an endless search for a country which would accept the toxic ash. After sparking congressional inquiries and a number of lawsuits, and wandering through the seas for 27 months on a journey that took it to four continents where country after country declined to accept the ash, the ship, renamed the Pelicano, arrived in Singapore without its cargo. The ship owners have refused to say where the ash went and a Justice Department inquiry has so far been unable to locate it. CIR and Moyers emphasize that the case of the Khian Sea, which garnered international attention, carried only one month's waste from one major U.S. city.
The authors also relate the stories of "entrepreneurs" who have been convicted of illegally exporting hazardous waste. They focus on brothers Jack and Charlie Colbert, who were convicted in 1986 for exporting misleadingly labelled hazardous wastes. CIR and Moyers found that the bulk of the hazardous waste the Colberts shipped to over 100 countries, mostly in the Third World, emanated from the U.S. government. It was legal for the Colberts to buy poisons like DDT from the government and sell them overseas, but they broke the law when they relabelled the hazardous waste "surplus chemicals." The Colberts said they also did business with numerous multinational corporations, including Ford, Exxon, DuPont and Celanese.
In their most significant findings, the authors explore loopholes in U.S. federal hazardous waste export laws which allow dumping abroad. By tracing the paths of used acid-lead batteries and non-ferrous scrap metals, the authors uncovered processing plants which expose workers and nearby residents to dangerously high levels of lead, PCBs, asbestos and other toxins. Scrap metal and used car batteries are exempt from federal hazardous waste export laws, although their health dangers are well known. By processing used car batteries abroad (over 70 million are discarded in the United States every year), companies avoid stringent exposure limits in the United States. The authors claim that millions of used car batteries were shipped in 1989 to Mexico, Japan, Canada, India, Venezuela, China, South Korea, South Africa and Taiwan. CIR and Moyers found that at one lead smelting plant in Brazil, workers who have been overexposed to lead complain of headaches, dizziness, stomach cramps, nausea, kidney pains, a sense of weakness and aching. The authors also document a growing scrap metal industry in Asia, especially China, where labor is cheap and regulations are lax. The scrap metal is covered with PCBs, asbestos and other hazardous materials. This startling evidence on the dumping of non-ferrous metals in Asia--probably the greatest contribution of the book--has not previously been explored, according to Jim Vallette, a hazardous waste expert with Greenpeace.
The authors also discuss the hazardous waste trade between the industrialized nations. Waste travels from the United States to Canada, and from Western Europe to the United Kingdom. Canada and the United Kingdom have "built flourishing businesses to take in unwanted materials from other nations," CIR and Moyers write. Canada, for example, has a booming business of importing, processing, and exporting hazardous wastes to the First World and the Third World. Truckloads from the U.S. arrive in Canada daily, carrying the waste of companies like Monsanto, Dow Corning, IBM, General Electric, and Ashland Oil.
While much of the information presented in Global Dumping Ground has previously been documented, the book offers an accurate, precise and accessible overview of a critically important issue. But it does not provide an in-depth analysis of the export of hazardous waste. For example, CIR and Moyers provide only two examples of the illegal export of hazardous waste and fail to extrapolate on the magnitude of this illicit business, leaving it unclear whether the illegal acts described are rare or common.
The book may dizzy the reader by jumping from one subject to another. The first chapter, for example, begins by discussing the environmental and human health effects of the trade on the Third World and the "powerful economic equation" driving the trade. The authors then explain that the United States is the main producer of the waste, explore the defects in U.S. environmental regulation and finally conclude with the Basel Convention, a 1989 international meeting where the United States successfully fought Third World attempts to enact measures which would limit international hazardous waste commerce. Each one of these subject areas could be a chapter, if not a book, of its own.
The dangers exposed in Global Dumping Ground demand a reassessment of hazardous waste production, regulatory standards and international law. Accordingly, the authors conclude that the human health and environmental dangers posed require not only an overhaul of U.S. hazardous waste export controls and greater enforcement measures, but technological changes to reduce the generation of hazardous waste at it s source. Although it is rarely discussed, source reduction is feasible, as Joel Hirschhorn, a former Office of Technology Assessment official, told CIR and Moyers: "The greatest misconception I find among all sorts of people is the assumption that we have to produce toxic waste. And that is simply wrong. We can run American industry, we can operate industrial facilities, we can make the kinds of products people want and we don't have to produce so much toxic waste.... Waste is inefficiency. Waste is non-competitive." And, most troubling, waste from the North kills in the South.