by Kenny Bruno

ON November 22, 1994, a Pakistani Senate Committee convened for an unusual second hearing to investigate the environmental and health effects of importing a polluting and obsolete industrial plant from Denmark.

As the Hearing began, Ravi Alkalis, Ltd., the Lahore, Pakistan-based company that bought the Danish plant, made a surprise joint announcement with the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and Greenpeace International: Ravi would agree not to use controversial mercury cells for chlorine production at its production site near Lahore.

 Yet as the hearing took place, a shipment containing seven containers of mercury-contaminated equipment, for the very technology Ravi had rejected, was en route from Denmark to Pakistan. Behind the announcement was months of controversy in Denmark and Pakistan, a loophole in international legislation exposed, and an early test of the March 1994 Basel Convention agreement to ban hazardous waste exports from industrialized countries to the developing world.


A discredited technology

 TThe story begins with Dansk Sojakagen (DS) Industries, a subsidiary of East Asiatic Company (EAC), one of Denmark’s oldest firms. From 1935 until 1991, DS Industries operated a chlor-alkali plant as part of a three-plant Copenhagen chemical complex, known as Sojakagefabrik, using mercury cell technology. Between 1935 and 1978, the company discharged an estimated 50 metric tons of toxic mercury into Copenhagen Harbor. According to Karsten Poulsen, leader of the Bryggegrupperne neighborhood association, 97 percent of the workers at the plant had elevated mercury content in their urine, “inhabitants of the area were forbidden to grow their own vegetables because of mercury emissions ... to the atmosphere” and “fishing is still prohibited due to former mercury discharges from the plant.”

 Such discharges are not unusual for these kinds of plants; mercury cell-using plants have historically released large quantities of mercury, and severe mercury contamination from chlor-alkali plants has been documented at Lake Managua, Nicaragua, Mersey Estuary, U.K., Hallein, Austria, and several sites in Sweden, among others. Mercury, which causes nervous system disorders, insanity and even death in humans, is most dangerous in aquatic ecosystems as it tends to bioaccumulate in fish. The countries belonging to the Paris Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution countries — including Denmark — have agreed that “mercury cell chlor-alkali plants should be phased out completely by 2010.” But the Convention put no system in place to track what happens to the mercury cells as they are phased out.

Community members had protested Sojakagefabrik’s operations for 20 years. In 1988, the Danish Parliament passed legislation to close it down due to environmental and health concerns. While a change in government prevented the legislation from being implemented, DS Industries decided voluntarily to close the plant in 1991.

 When DS shut the Copenhagen plant, it became an economic liability, since disposal of the plant through incineration and landfill in Denmark and Germany would cost millions of dollars. Thus the sale of the plant, at any price, would represent a major savings for the Danish company. No West European company would buy a technology already discredited and slated for elimination; no U.S. buyer was likely, since chlor-alkali plants are less common and effluent regulations are quite strict in the United States; and there would be no Japanese takers, since mercury cell technology has been completely eliminated in Japan. But just as hazardous waste unwanted in the North has found its way to Africa, Asia and Latin America, and just as Northern companies routinely export pesticides and pharmaceuticals banned in the country of manufacture, so too was EAS able to find a Third World buyer for the obsolete Danish mercury cells: Ravi Alkalis.


Denmark to Pakistan: We “can't stop the sale”

 IIronically, news of the sale broke in Denmark last March while Environment Minister Svend Auken was in Geneva at a meeting of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes. Auken was one of the leaders in negotiations to ban hazardous waste exports to Third World countries, and the Danes helped form a powerful coalition with the Group of 77 (the negotiating bloc of developing countries). In a rare show of uncompromising toughness, this alliance had isolated and defeated a handful of powerful industrialized countries — including Britain, Canada and Australia — overriding their insistence on the purported benefits of exporting wastes to less industrialized countries.

 Auken condemned the sale, calling it a clear case of “double standards” and later saying, “I know of nothing more disgusting than when one has banned a technology or chemical in one’s own country and then exports it with a profit to other countries.” But, he added, “I cannot stop the sale.” The story from the Copenhagen authorities was the same. Mayor for Environment Charlotte Ammundsen, while saying “if the old plant is to be operated by people who do not know it well, there are great risks of discharges of both mercury and chlorine,” also said she could not stop the sale. In Parliament, one Member found it “very disturbing” to “sell an outdated technology which we would not touch with a fire-poker to a country in the Third World.” But a parliamentary resolution to stop the sale failed to gain majority support.

 During the fall, the campaign against the sale gained momentum in Copenhagen. Questions were raised in Parliament, a Greenpeace vessel kept a watch in Copenhagen Harbor, special legislation was proposed. Pakistani non-governmental organizations faxed letters to the Environment and Industry Ministries, accusing Denmark of “dumping dirty technology on a developing country.” The prospect of international scandal for Denmark grew, as Copenhagen prepared to host the UN’s World Summit for Social Development in March. Still, the Danish government, one of the most progressive on international environmental issues, claimed it could not prevent this dirty technology transfer. On Oct. 31, the Sojakage power station, to be used for the chlor-alkali plant, was shipped from Copenhagen. On November 16, with the mercury cells being packed for shipment, Social Liberal Party spokesperson Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen concluded, “The export permit of EAC is completely legal, and therefore we can only put moral pressure on the company.”


Pakistan to Denmark: no thanks

 IIn Pakistan, the scheme had obtained all the necessary approvals. The Punjab Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had issued a “No Objection Certificate,” and the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Urban Affairs, after a perfunctory hearing, also approved the sale.

 The scheme started to unravel after a series of public meetings and press conferences in early November led by Greenpeace, SDPI, Shirkat Gah (a women’s organization) and a confederation of 45 Pakistani trade unions. The focus of these meetings was the hopeless inadequacy of the environmental impact statement for the project and the inadequate information provided to the Senate. Among other glaring misunderstandings, the Senate had been led to believe that “there would be no liquid effluents from the plant.” The environmental impact statement mentioned the presence of groundwater at only 25-30 feet below ground, yet made no provision for solid waste disposal off-site. The impact statement did not consider the potential for contamination of a canal running through the plant and leading to the Ravi River. And no plans were made for final disposal of the mercury cells themselves. This omission made plain the double standard which led to the sale: responsibility for disposal of this equipment, which had been used in Denmark for 20 years, would now fall to Pakistan after only a few years use. There were no plans for decontamination or disposal of the contaminated equipment.

 The last straw for Ravi was probably the decision by the Senate Standing Committee, recognizing it had not heard the whole story, to hold an unusual second hearing on the matter. This time the Senate invited Greenpeace and SDPI to testify. By then, a group of 45 trade unions had denounced the sale. Kamal Shah, the joint secretary of the Karachi Port Workers Union, raised the stakes, saying, “We will stop the toxic cargo from being imported at the port [of Karachi].”

 Shortly after the scheduling of the second hearing, an anonymous Ravi official was quoted in The Statesman, an Indian daily, as saying, “If we had an inkling that this plant would cause such an uproar, we wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole.” For a company not accustomed to public scrutiny, the prospect of continued controversy was too high a price. The day before the Senate Hearing, officials from Ravi, SDPI and Greenpeace met, and Ravi informed the groups of their decision to “eliminate from the scope of the plant the mercury cells, the mercury itself, and mercury-contaminated equipment.” In a letter given to the Senate the next day, Ravi said it would go ahead with importing the rest of the plant, and would replace the mercury cells with membrane cells, a technology which does not reduce the hazards of chlorine emissions or downstream organochlorine contamination, but does eliminate mercury use and emissions.


Basel Convention returns waste to sender

 RRavi’s decision did not by itself remove the danger that the mercury-contaminated equipment would come to Pakistan. The company could of course choose what to use and what not to use, but its contract and shipping papers already committed it to importing the entire plant. Moreover, on the day of the Senate hearing, Greenpeace learned that seven containers, some with mercury equipment, had just left Copenhagen for Karachi.

 At this point, backed by Ravi’s announcement that it would not use mercury technology, the Danish government quickly reclassified the equipment as hazardous waste, reasoning that what will not be used for production is waste. As hazardous waste, the equipment is prohibited from export from the rich countries (including Denmark) that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries (like Pakistan) under the Basel Convention decision of March 25, 1994. Both Denmark and Pakistan are parties to the Convention.

 A day later, Greenpeace located the containers in Bremerhaven, Germany, and Denmark secured an agreement from German authorities to keep them there for a few days until repatriation to Denmark could be arranged. The mercury cells and the mercury itself will be disposed of under Danish regulations as part of EAC’s massive cleanup of the Sojakage site.


Loopholes revealed

 UUnfortunately, the repatriation of hazardous waste cannot be taken for granted in these situations. A previous episode of mercury cell transfer is a case in point. The Olin Corporation in Niagara Falls, New York, sent 15 mercury cells to Elpesa, a joint-venture of the Nicaraguan government and the U.S.-based Pennwalt (now Atochem) in August of 1990. In January 1991, the Nicaraguan government shut the plant, thus ensuring that the cells would not be used. But the cells remain in a warehouse in Managua [see “Niagara to Nicaragua,” Multinational Monitor, January/February 1992]. Similarly, between 1990 and 1993, Geismar, Louisiana-based Borden Chemicals and Plastics sent several thousand barrels of mercuric chloride waste to Thor Chemicals in South Africa, supposedly for recycling. Thor now admits that it cannot recycle the wastes, yet 2,596 barrels with the Borden label sit in Thor’s warehouse in Natal.

 Both the cells in Nicaragua and the barrels in South Africa will remain untouched, ultimately leaking mercury to the environment, unless the U.S. companies voluntarily decide to bring them home. Until and unless the United States ratifies the Basel Convention and respects the ban on hazardous waste exports, there is no U.S. legislation to prevent these kinds of exports from happening again.

 The Denmark-to-Pakistan scheme also revealed a number of shortcomings in Pakistani hazardous waste and environmental legislation. At the second senate hearing on the sale, it became clear that Pakistan has no standards for environmental impact statements, no system for screening dirty technology transfers and no process for collecting information except that provided by industry. The Punjab EPA was badly discredited after an EPA official stated that the Ravi plant posed no problems because it was in a rural area. To which one senator replied, “Please don’t ruin our rural areas, too.” There is no reason to believe these legal and institutional inadequacies are limited to Pakistan.

 On the positive side, SDPI and several other Pakistani non-governmental organizations acquired new legitimacy in the eyes of the government and industry. Their involvement in an industrial issue was unprecedented, but they plan to make a habit of it. SDPI and Ravi have agreed to form a joint committee to monitor the decision to avoid mercury cells. And a recent announcement by Ravi’s competitors, Sitara Chemical Group, to build a PVC plant to re-use excess chlorine in its PVC production process has also provoked SDPI to begin scrutiny of Sitara and the whole chlorine and PVC industry.

 Denmark has been spared the embarrassment of watching helplessly as its hazardous exports sail for Pakistan, but the Parliament acknowledged that it was environmental groups’ vigilance which spared them, and that next time they might not be so lucky. Minister Auken is now using the case at the Nordic Council to advocate providing information about technology that is transferred to Third World countries.

 Such a step cannot come too soon. According to Ravi Alkalis, a mercury cell plant was shipped from Norway to India last year. Neither the Norwegian environmental authorities nor any intergovernmental agency or environmental group was aware of the sale.

 With some 74 mercury cell plants in Western Europe slated for phase out by 2010, the Paris Commission countries must develop a system for tracking mercury equipment and preventing its shipment to the Third World. In the longer term, the international community must find a way to identify and track all obsolete and dirty products and technologies, and provide legal mechanisms for preventing their transfer. Otherwise, every environmental victory in the North will be a potential setback for the South, and the technology transfer now so desired by developing countries will be scorned as a new form of toxic colonialism.


Moving to Asia

 Chlorine itself is the subject of intense environmental debate in the North, and many chlorine markets are shrinking due to environmental pressures. The reason is that chlorine is at the root of most of the world’s most toxic and persistent chemicals, including notorious organochlorine compounds such as DDT, PCBs and dioxin. Among other properties, these chemicals wreak havoc on human health by mimicking the hormone estrogen, causing cancer and birth defects. As evidence condemning chlorine continues to pour in, businesses in most industrialized countries are replacing ozone-destroying CFCs, chlorine bleach for pulp and paper and chlorinated solvents for cleaning in the electronics, paints and automotive industries with safer substitutes.

 Faced with shrinking chlorine markets in the North, the chemical industry as a whole has set its sights on the industrializing regions of Asia and Latin America, where industry executives forecast major growth for chlorine. Gradually, chlorine producers are shifting production to Asian and Latin American countries.

 But Pakistan, with 132,000 metric tons annual chlorine production capacity and only 30,000 metric tons annual consumption, already has more than enough chlorine.

Chlorine makers often justify their product as essential to the health of the Third World because of its usefulness in water disinfection. But water disinfection only accounts for about 1 percent of chlorine use worldwide. The biggest use of chlorine is in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. This use is the long-range plan for the chlorine from Ravi Alkalis.

 PVC is associated with dioxin and other organochlorines throughout its lifecycle, and is under considerable regulatory attack, especially in Western Europe. A sweeping indictment of PVC comes from the Swedish Ecocycle Commission, a government advisory group, which recently concluded that PVC “has no place in the eco-society” and recommended its phase out by the year 2000. By then, Ravi Chemicals and many other Asian firms plan to have increased their stake in chlorine, PVC and PVC additives.

 — K.B.