JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1998 · VOLUME 19 · NUMBERS 1 & 2
T H E F R O N T
The saga began in the mid-1980s, when Philadelphia encountered serious difficulties in disposing of ash from its municipal waste incinerator. The reason was common to ash generated by mass-burn facilities around the country: incineration concentrates toxic metals in the ash, making it a threat to soil and groundwater wherever it is buried. As landfills for toxic waste became controversial and expensive, unscrupulous brokers looked overseas for a "solution."
The Philadelphia ash was especially problematic, as it contained detectable levels of dioxins and furans, as well as relatively high levels of lead and cadmium. (Despite these levels, all U.S. municipal incinerator ash was automatically exempted from hazardous waste regulations, because it was derived from household waste. That exemption has since been eliminated.) Philadelphia eventually stockpiled a whopping quarter million tons of the cinders at its Roxborough facility. In Fall 1987, it even attempted to export the entire ash mountain to Panama for road building, a scheme that was rejected by the Panamanian authorities after a Greenpeace exposé.
In September 1996, 14,000 tons of the accumulated ash did leave Philadelphia, on the cargo ship Khian Sea. But the vessel quickly ran into a series of improbable rejections. Over the next 16 months, the Khian Sea's caustic cargo was turned away by three U.S. states and five Caribbean island nations. It traveled as far as West Africa looking for a home, to no avail.
Finally, in the last days of 1987, armed with a bogus import certificate falsely labeling the cargo as fertilizer, the Khian Sea docked at the Sedren wharf in Gonaives in northwest Haiti. In January 1988, the crew offloaded some 4,000 tons of the ash, and left it on a beach adjacent to the decrepit pier.
The dumping caused an uproar almost immediately. One crew member, confronted by environmentalists from Port au Prince, went so far as to eat a handful of the ash on camera, saying "here's what I think of its toxicity," as he munched on his snack.
The authorities were not impressed. The Haitian Commerce Minister ordered the crew to reload the ash and leave, but the Khian Sea left in the middle of the night without reloading the ash.
The ash has remained on Haitian shores for 10 years.
All manner of attempts to persuade the Philadelphia and U.S. authorities to repatriate the ash have failed. Just two weeks after the dumping, a Greenpeace team returned from Gonaives to Philadelphia with samples of the ash and called on then-Mayor Wilson Goode to retrieve the ash. No response. Thousands of petitions were delivered without effect. The Haiti Communications Project spearheaded a mailing of little packets of the ash to Philadelphia to prod the city into action. No response. When the owners of the Khian Sea were convicted of perjury relating to the voyage of their vessel (they were never tried for the dumping in Haiti), Philadelphia officials asked the judge to consider requiring repatriation of the ash as part of the sentence. The judge gave them jail time instead. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United Nations Development Program sent a mission to the site, which recommended building a permanent containment facility in Haiti for the ash. No steps were taken to do so. Greenpeace asked the U.S. military to load the ash on its way home from restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government. No reply.
The only change since the original dumping was that a portion of the ash was moved to an unlined, uncovered, unmarked bunker a couple miles inland from the beach. A Greenpeace laboratory analysis of samples showed that heavy metals from the ash had begun to contaminate adjoining soil. Even the simplest precautions, such as fencing off the bunker and closing nearby salt drying fields, have not been taken.
The scandal of the Khian Sea and others like it led to the negotiation of a landmark international environmental treaty -- the Basel Convention -- which prohibits the export of toxic waste from the industrialized countries to the rest of the world. But that treaty does not cover past actions, and in any case the United States has refused to sign it.
Steps have been taken to redress the wrong perpetrated on Haiti, however, and by a surprising source: the City of New York.
Two years ago, the New York City Trade Waste Commission was created to rid the city's garbage industry of organized crime influence. As part of this effort, the Commission scrutinizes every company which applies for a license to haul New York trash. In Summer 1997, a company called Eastern Environmental Services, based in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, applied for the lucrative license. While vetting the company, Commission lawyer Russell Bixler discovered that the head of Eastern, Louis Paolino, was also a principal officer of Joseph Paolino and Sons, the company which had subcontracted to the operator of the Khian Sea for disposal of Philadelphia's ash. Paolino and Sons also owned Philadelphia's Pier 2, which burned down mysteriously just as the Khian Sea was about to dock there on its return from Haiti, and refused to repossess the remaining 10,000 tons of ash, preferring to sue the Khian Sea's owners. (The 10,000 tons of ash were eventually dumped at sea, according to testimony of the ship's captain.)
The Commission's study of Eastern was inconclusive; compared to many other companies in the business it was relatively clean, but Louis Paolino had a black mark on his past. The Commission decided to grant Eastern the license, but under two conditions: that it provide landfill space for the 5,000 tons of material from Haiti (4,000 tons of ash plus 1,000 tons of contaminated soil), and $100,000 toward the costs of shipping it to the United States. These conditions were required under an order signed by the company, which stands to make millions in the New York trash market.
However, the Commission's well-intentioned negotiations with Eastern fell a little short. A feasibility study recently carried out by Greater Caribbean Dredging, a New York-based company, estimates that it will cost about $300,000 to excavate, pack and barge the ash back to the United States, not including transport from the port in Philadelphia to one of Eastern's landfills in Pennsylvania. And the clock is ticking on raising the rest of the funds -- New York's agreement with Eastern expires in May.
With that in mind, Greenpeace and several Haitian groups have launched an emergency campaign to complete Project Return To Sender.
In January, pointing out that $100,000 amounted to only .004 percent of Philadelphia's annual budget, Greenpeace and the Haiti Communications Project called on Philadelphia's current mayor, Ed Rendell, to provide assistance.
The city's response was a brush off. Rendell's Chief of Staff Gregory Rost had given New York City a similar slap in the face in reply to the Trade Waste Commission's September request for $50,000. Rost called the $50,000 a "substantial sum" and said that any contribution made by Philadelphia would have to be "cost neutral." Privately, New York City officials are furious with the Philly mayor's response, which wrongly implies that New York has something to gain from this deal.
The U.S. State Department has responded somewhat more positively to Greenpeace's request for assistance, saying it has no objections to the project and asking the U.S. embassy in Port au Prince to provide advice and logistical assistance. But when it comes to hard cash, no dice, says a State Department spokesperson. But the pressure is building. In response to a press conference held by the Haitian environmental group COHPEDA in January in Port au Prince, Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fritz Longchamps committed $50,000 from the Haitian government for the project. He also instructed law firms representing President Preval and the Haitian government in the United States to lobby for a successful conclusion.
The scandal of the Khian Sea spans almost the entire nasty history of the international trade in toxic wastes. Project Return To Sender could represent the last chapter.
-- Kenny Bruno. Kenny Bruno, a contributing writer to Multinational Monitor, is a campaigner with Greenpeace.
Han Young produces welded chassis for tractor trailers. Conditions at Han Young are unhealthy and dangerous. Workers frequently suffer poisoning from toxic gases and loss of vision. Outmoded cranes carrying tons of metal swing out of control in all-too-frequent, nearly fatal incidents. Han Young workers suffer these conditions while trying to support their families on wages that average less than 50 cents an hour.
In seeking to exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively, the Han Young workers ran head-on into Mexico's official, corrupt labor-management system. Throughout Mexico, labor relations are determined by union federations under the control of the long-ruling PRI party. The PRI unions deliver sham representation; workers do not elect officials of the PRI unions, nor do they have any say in "protection contracts" which are negotiated in secret.
When the Han Young workers began organizing for independent representation, they already had a "union" -- one of the PRI federations, the CROC. CROC representatives showed up at Han Young only to collect pay-offs from management.
On June 2, 1997, Han Young workers refused to enter the factory. The workers returned to the job only after management agreed to talks. By this time, 90 percent had signed membership cards for STIMAHCS, a metal workers' union affiliated with the independent FAT labor federation.
After a brief period of accommodation, the company began a campaign of intimidation. Twelve union leaders, out of a total workforce of slightly more than 100, were fired during the next few months.
Eventually, however, the Tijuana labor board scheduled a union certification election. On October 6, even though the board allegedly allowed the company to bus in approximately 30 fraudulent voters, STIMAHCS defeated the CROC handily.
On November 10, the labor board announced that it would not certify the STIMAHCS victory. Among the reasons offered for this decision: Han Young workers make auto parts (in fact, they weld tractor trailer chassis) and therefore cannot be represented by a metal workers union; and STIMAHCS is not registered as a national union (in fact, it has been registered for many years). Ten days later, four workers began a hunger strike which three of them were to maintain for almost a month.
When Han Young management, the labor board and Baja state officials proved intransigent, the workers asked the Mexican federal government to intervene -- to certify the STIMAHCS victory and to insist the company engage in good-faith bargaining.
The federal government did step in, but ordered a second election. That appeared to be a major concession to Han Young, since management had reportedly been offering sizeable bribes to any worker who would vote for another PRI labor federation posing as an independent union. But the workers consented to a second election and, against all odds, a majority again voted for STIMAHCS.
In spite of two election victories for STIMAHCS, Han Young management brought more than 60 thugs and replacement workers -- all claiming to be workers at the factory -- to the labor board and declared that a majority of workers did not want a STIMAHCS. Representatives of the government unions installed themselves at the factory and began telling management who to hire and fire. Meanwhile, Baja state officials claimed that STIMAHCS did not represent the Han Young workers.
But the unity of the Han Young workers and strong international support enabled the workers to stare down Han Young management, two PRI-controlled union federations, the Tijuana industry owners' association, the Tijuana labor board, the Baja state government and the Mexican federal government. On January 14, federal officials pressured the state government to negotiate a settlement with STIMAHCS.
Three coincidental developments tipped the balance in favor of the Han Young workers. First, their struggle came to a head during the U.S. congressional debate over fast track. Representatives Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, David Bonior, D-Michigan, and Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and others had traveled to Mexico to meet with Han Young workers. Their plight became a case study in the broken promises of NAFTA and contributed to the defeat of fast track.
Second, this struggle took place as Asia was plunging into financial crisis. Chassis welded at Han Young are turned into tractor trailers at nearby Hyundai Precision America. Hyundai Precision is a division of the Hyundai Group, based in Korea. Strong U.S. grassroots support from unionists and other activists for the Han Young workers included a call for a boycott of Hyundai Motors. As vanishing liquidity forced the Hyundai Group to abandon one billion-dollar project after another, the conglomerate became acutely sensitive to consumer pressure against any of its divisions. The San Diego headquarters of Hyundai Precision America was soon telling Han Young management to clean up its act.
Officials at Hyundai Precision America did not respond to requests for comment on the situation at Han Young.
Third, just when the Mexican federal government emerged as the primary force opposing the Han Young workers, a paramilitary group loyal to the PRI massacred 45 civilians in Acteal, Chiapas. The human rights disaster in Mexico made President Ernesto Zedillo the focus of international condemnation. With Han Young as yet another human rights sore point, Zedillo chose to cut his loses and sent his representatives to negotiate a settlement. International solidarity was the common thread between these developments. The San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, which has strong ties with the Han Young workers, and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Labor Rights were able to mobilize a network of activists, unionists and members of the U.S. Congress to put pressure on key players in Mexico and elsewhere. At Han Young, the company's continuing refusal to engage in collective bargaining over a contract stands between the workers and full victory. Irrespective of how future events unfold, however, the Han Young victory sets an important precedent that shows workers in Mexico can break free from the shackles of official unionism -- and how powerful international solidarity can be.
-- Trim Bissell. Trim Bissell is the national coordinator of the Campaign for Labor Rights.