Names in the News

GE's Deadly Medicine

A GENERAL ELECTRIC (GE) TECHNICIAN was found guilty of criminal negligence in a Spanish court for his role in what experts are calling the world's worst radiation therapy accident, in which 27 patients allegedly received overdoses from a malfunctioning radiation machine at a hospital in Zaragoza, Spain during a 10-day period in December 1990. A Zaragoza judge handed down the decision in April, determining that the overdoses resulted in 20 deaths and seven serious injuries.

 According to Phyllis Piano, spokesperson for GE Medical Systems in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the equipment - a Sagittaire linear accelerator - was designed, manufactured, sold and installed by companies affiliated with Thomas CGR, a French company acquired by GE in 1988.

Although new Sagittaire units have not been manufactured since 1984, the Zaragoza machine was serviced by GE-CGR Espana, a GE subsidiary, GE said. According to Piano, there are approximately 25 Sagittaire units operating worldwide, including the unit in Zaragoza.

 Dr. James Schwade, chair of the department of radiation oncology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, visited Zaragoza in May 1991 at the request of victims' attorneys. "The injuries I saw were very severe," Schwade says. "This is the worst radiation therapy accident that I am aware of in terms of severity of injuries and the number of patients involved."

 According to GE, the court found both Mariano Conte, the company's service technician, and GE-CGR Espana civilly liable for the $3.7 million award to the accident victims. Although Conte was found guilty of criminal negligence, GE-CGR Espana was not the subject of any criminal charges.

 Michael Repiso, a Miami lawyer advising some of the victims in the case, said that other charges are being pursued against officers and directors of GE. According to Repiso, provincial authorities in Zaragoza are investigating GE officials for possible criminal wrongdoing.

 Piano says that there is no criminal complaint currently pending against directors of GE CGR Espana. "There have been repeated attempts by parties in Spain to initiate an investigation by the appropriate authorities as to whether charges should be brought against GE CGR Espana directors," says Piano. "They have been rejected by both instruction and trial judges."


The Litter Lobby

MORE THAN A DOZEN ENVIRONMENTAL and public interest groups charged in March that the organization Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is a corporate front group for industries that create waste and promote landfills and incineration over recycling and reuse.

Pat Franklin, executive director of Container Recycling Institute, a public interest group that serves as a clearinghouse for information on deposit legislation, charged that KAB's primary mission between 1970 and 1990 was to defeat bottle recycling legislation at the state and federal levels.

 According to Franklin, in 1976, KAB's members included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Wildlife Federation, the Audobon Society and the Sierra Club, but those groups and more than a dozen others left the organization that year when KAB openly opposed bottle bills on the ballot in four states.

 In the 1970s, KAB's promotional slogan was "People Start Pollution - People Can Stop It." KAB's new advertising will instruct viewers that "recycling alone just can't do it."

 "[KAB is] still putting the blame for waste generation and the responsibility for waste management on the public sector, when the real polluters are the industries that manufacture, sell, bury and burn the waste," says Rick Hind of Greenpeace's toxics campaign.

 "KAB's promotional materials are silent on policies such as elimination of tax credits [for manufacturing with virgin materials], requirements for recycled content, mandatory recycling rates, bottle bills, requirements for reuse or moratoriums on unsafe disposal methods that would shift the burden for waste management from the public to the private sector," Hind asserts.

 "We are not a trade group," says Roger Powers, KAB's president. "We have a grassroots constituency. Our members are a good cross-section of the Fortune 500 corporations. We are helping to educate 495 American communities on what the [waste management] options are. I don't go hat in hand seeking out environmental groups."


Toxic Traffickers Busted

IN APRIL, A LOS ANGELES JURY CONVICTED Tariq Ahmad, 33, of Reno, Nevada on charges of illegally transporting and exporting hazardous waste to Pakistan for disposal in violation of U.S. federal environmental law.

According to federal prosecutors Stephen A. Mansfield and Nathan Hochman, the evidence at trial showed that Ahmad illegally transported and exported hazardous chemical waste to Pakistan for disposal after he and his co-defendant, Rafat Asrar, 38, of Irvine, California, intentionally set fire to Shankman Laboratories as part of a fraudulent scheme to collect over $205,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Shankman Laboratories, in Chatsworth, California, was a chemical laboratory owned by Ahmad.

The jury also returned verdicts against Ahmad and Asrar on charges of arson, conspiracy to commit arson, mail fraud and perjury. Ahmad was also convicted of money laundering.

 The cost of legally disposing of the hazardous chemical waste that remained in the lab after the fire was approximately $80,000. In contrast, the cost of exporting the hazardous waste to Pakistan for illegal disposal cost only $1,800. Ahmad intended to dump the 27 55-gallon drums of hazardous waste down mine shafts in Pakistan ; the mines are owned by Ahmad and his family.

The hazardous waste, which included cyanide, mercury and arsenic, would have severely contaminated underground drinking water supplies and seriously endangered human health, according to the federal/state task force on environmental prosecutions that investigated the case.

 - Ben Lilliston