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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Toxic Wastes and The New World Order

by Mitchell Cohen, Brooklyn Greens, Green Party of New York

Twelve years ago, the soon-to-be infamous barge, the Khian Sea , left the territorial waters of the United States and began circling the oceans in search of a country willing to accept its cargo: 14,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash.

First it went to the Bahamas, then to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau and the Netherlands Antilles. Wherever it went, people gathered to protest its arrival. No one wanted the hundreds of thousands of pounds of Philadelphia ash dumped in their country. Desperate to unload, the ship's crew lied about their cargo, hoping to catch a government unawares. Sometimes they identified the ash as "construction material," other times they said it was road fill, and still others "muddy waste." But environmental experts were generally one step ahead in notifying the recipients; no one would take it. That is, until it got to Haiti. There, officials were told it was the "fertilizer" they'd ordered, and four thousand tons of the ash was dumped onto the beach in the town of Gonaïves.

It didn't take Haitian officials long to realize they weren't getting fertilizer.

It didn't take Haitian officials long to realize they weren't getting fertilizer. They canceled the import permit and ordered the waste returned to the ship. But the Khian Sea slipped away in the night, leaving the toxic ash on the beach.(1)

For two years more years the Khian Sea went from country to country, to no avail, trying to dispose of the remaining 10,000 tons. The crew even painted over the barge's name—not once, but twice. Still, no one was fooled into taking its toxic cargo. A crew member later testified that the waste was finally dumped, when no one was looking, into the Indian Ocean.

The activist environmental group, Greenpeace, pressured the US government to test the "fertilizer." The US Environmental Protection Agency and Greenpeace found hazardous levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and dioxin. But no one would clean it up.

The cost of the cleanup at Gonaïves had been estimated to be around $300,000. But Philadelphia lawyer Ed Rendell—then mayor of that city and now Chairman of the Democratic National Committee—refused to put up the funds, despite Philadelphia's $130 million budget surplus.(2) Joseph Paolino and Sons, the firm that commissioned the Khian Sea , refused as well.

In July of 1992, the US Justice Department—under pressure from environmental groups throughout the world—finally filed indictments against two waste traders who had shipped and dumped the ash. Similar indictments were brought against three individuals and four corporations who illegally exported 3,000 tons of hazardous waste to Bangladesh and Australia, also labeled as "fertilizer." But the waste traders were not charged with dumping their toxic cargo at sea, nor even with falsely labeling it as fertilizer and abandoning it on the beaches of Haiti, Bangladesh and Australia. They were charged only with lying to a grand jury.

Why? Because US law protects the traders, not the recipients of toxic wastes. In recent years, much of the waste from industrialized countries is exported openly, under the name of "recycled material." This is touted as "fuel" for incinerators generating energy in poor countries. "Once a waste is designated as 'recyclable' it is exempt from US toxic waste law and can be bought and sold as if it were ice cream. Slags, sludges, and even dusts captured on pollution control filters are being bagged up and shipped abroad," writes Peter Montague in Rachel's Weekly. "These wastes may contain significant quantities of valuable metals, such as zinc, but they also can and do contain significant quantities of toxic by-products such as cadmium, lead and dioxins. The 'recycling' loophole in US toxic waste law is big enough to float a barge through, and many barges are floating through it uncounted."(3)

The same is true for waste labeled as "fertilizer." Every year, thousands of tons of toxic waste from the US, deceptively labeled as "fertilizer," is plowed into farms, beaches and deserts in Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Brazil and dozens of other countries. The Clinton administration has followed former President George Bush's lead in allowing US corporations to mix incinerator ash and other wastes containing high concentrations of lead, cadmium and mercury with agricultural chemicals. This is sold to unsuspecting or uncaring agencies and governments throughout the world.(4)

These dangerous chemicals are considered "inert" in this context; they play no active role as "fertilizer"—although they are very active in causing cancers and other diseases. Under US law, ingredients designated as "inert" are not required to be labelled nor reported to the buyer.

Similarly, unlisted "inert ingredients," including chemicals known to be carcinogenic, were allowed to be mixed in with the Malathion and Pyrethroid insecticides sprayed in massive quantities over the population and environment of New York City in the fall of 1999. Some of these "inert ingredients," propellants and synergists, such as the known carcinogen Piperonyl Butoxide (PBO), increase the toxicity of the deadly mist on mosquitoes. But they also dramatically increase the dangers to people and the environment. Other ingredients, such as the petroleum distillates found in most of the pesticides sprayed, impact the liver and immune system. The long-range health effects on people and ecoystems are already turning out to be severe.

The Clinton Administration cracked down on refugees fleeing the death squads in Haiti in 1993, imprisoning many who were said to be HIV positive in a concentration camp at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and returning many others to the torturers and toxic environment they were fleeing. The issue of the toxic "fertilizer" again came to the fore. Said one activist: "Instead of repatriating Haitian refugees to Haiti, the US government should repatriate this toxic waste back to its own country."(5)

Haiti, after all, has been a favorite dumping ground of corporate waste producers. The ecological devastation caused by toxic dumping has generated an equally devastating health crisis, exacerbated and the consequent absorption of some of those disposessed into sweatshops—euphemistically termed "enterprise" zones subcontracted by such corporations as Disney, Sears, Kathy Lee and Wal Mart. There, even the few environmental regulations that exist in the rest of the country are suspended, dramatically increasing rates of cancers and tuberculosis. Pneumonia and other opportunistic infections continue to wreak havoc in Haiti. One of the first steps taken by the military junta there following its coup in September of 1991 was to close down all the AIDS treatment and free health care programs that had been established under the brief Aristide government, which had been elected by an overwhelming majority of the Haitian population nine months before. As a consequence of the environmental devastation, clinic closings and exposure to toxins in food, air and water, women refugees from Haiti now living in the US exhibit a much higher rate of cervical cancer than the surrounding population.

But now, more than a decade after the fact, there has been some semblance of justice. Environmental and social justice groups have finally forced the US government and entrepreneurs to take back the wastes they dumped on the beach at Gonaïves.

Twelve years after its journey began, the waste has been "repatriated."

The removal process was made to happen only by the constant pressure of environmental activists in the US and Haiti. It took almost a year and required extensive cooperation between many entities. Remember Paolino & Sons, Inc.? That was the firm that had been subcontracted by the City of Philadelphia to transport its waste, and which in turn hired the Khian Sea . Years later, Louis D. Paolino, the company's former head, attempted to obtain lucrative waste hauling contracts in New York City through his new company, Eastern Environmental Services—since bought by Waste Management, Inc., which runs much of New York's extremely lucrative garbage industry. Before awarding new contracts or approving of the corporate buy-out, NY's Trade Waste Commission, the entity that regulates commercial waste disposal in New York City, "obtained" the agreement of Paolino, Waste Management Inc., and the City of Philadelphia to "contribute" financially towards removal of the ash in Haiti—the price for doing further business in New York City.

The Haiti government—which had replaced the military regime several years ago—oversaw the efforts, and also agreed to finance part of the removal. A team of workers in Gonaïves worked long hours under the hot sun for five months to make sure that the material was correctly treated and that all of it left Haiti. The USDA monitored the treatment. It was completed in late March, 2000.

The US Department of Agriculture developed and supervised the protocol for treating the ash, and certified that it was safe for disposal in a landfill in the US(6) The NY Trade Waste Commission managed the US financial contribution and the negotiations for a disposal site. (The dollar amounts contributed by the different US agencies have not yet been reported.)

Finally, on April 5, 2000, the ash departed from Gonaïves. It was unloaded in the US 17 days later and is being temporarily stored, awaiting transfer to a "permanent" storage place at a Waste Management site. Twelve years after its journey began, the waste has been "repatriated." Residents of the US will now have to deal with this particular toxic waste as well as the rapidly growing waste crisis, and its effects on the nation's water supply.


1. Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #595, April 23, 1998. For background information on the Khian Sea waste barge, please see the section entitled "Project Return to Sender" at www.essentialaction.org/
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Greenpeace Toxic Trade Campaign, United States Blocks Efforts to Prohibit Global Waste Dumping by Industrial States, December 2, 1992, and subsequent bulletins.
5. Ehrl LaFontant, Haiti Communications Project, Cambridge, Mass.
6. Michelle Karshan, foreign press liaison, Haitian government, April 4, 2000.

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