The Coastal Post - December, 1996

Toxic Trash Traffickers Thwarted

BY JIM SCANLON

Chinese authorities have begun cracking down on U.S. corporations and Hong Kong middlemen, who have been exporting toxic trash to their country. A 200 ton shipment of U.S. plastic waste was refused entry and now sits in Hong Kong harbor as stateless trash. It's future is uncertain as Hong Kong, whose businessmen brokered the deal, has no place to put it.

Other shipments of radioactive scrap metal, medical waste and contaminated refuse are also awaiting return to the U.S., Japan, European Countries and even Kazakstan.

Until April of this year, China has imported large amounts of toxic waste, chiefly from the U.S. and, according to the science journal Nature, large dumps for foreign waste were reported to have been created on the outskirts of many cities. Factories for recycling plastic were reported to stir molten plastic in huge vats without safety controls, thus implying a wanton disregard for the health and safety of working men and women and nearby residents.

Chinese newspapers have focused on the United States as the chief culprit for "using China as a dumping ground" and a law was passed in April of this year banning the import of waste for disposal and severely restricting what can be imported for recycling.

China is already following the United Nations Basle Convention on the Control of Transboundry Movement of Hazardous Waste, which requires an export permit and import approval for disposal. The U.S. and Hong Kong have not yet ratified this treaty.

What to do with the enormous tonnage of rubbish created and discarded every day is a major global problem seldom addressed openly. What to do with the enormous tonnage of toxic trash arises only occasionally, in aggravated cases, when one country or another-in this case-China, objects to being dumped on.

Dangerous, unpleasant waste tends to trickles down to the lowest, least powerful stratum of society within a national unit and to migrate to the poorest of the national units.

In the U.S. where problems are more easily accepted as race based, "environmental racism" has gotten little attention. Historically, Americans have had great difficulty organizing on economic class interest across racial and ethnic lines.

Nuclear waste is the exception because it seems impossible to agree on any disposal site. A committee of the National Research Council recently stated "there is no credible or probable chance of release of radioactive waste" from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico-except perhaps by humans looking for oil or gas. The Department of Energy wants to store thousands of tons of plutonium contaminated clothing, lab equipment and machine parts used in making nuclear bombs. DOE has already spent almost $2 billion on this site over the last ten years.

Britain has similar problems with nuclear waste. The private company that has the waste claims it will be safely stored underground and has spent US $636 million on research. The people who get the waste are leery of accepting 300,000 cubic meters of the stuff. Facing such powerful local opposition, it is easy to understand beleaguered, "bottom line" managers trying to quietly dispose of troublesome waste in poor countries with oppressed people, loose laws and cooperative officials.

Trade in waste is big business. New York City, for example, collects 14,000 metric tons of waste a day. One-thousand is recycled and 13,000 is shipped by barge to Staten Island to the Fresh Kills Dump, the largest dump in the history of the world. If the dump were to close, city officials estimate it would cost $300,000,000. a year to dump that waste "somewhere".

Already, private trash collectors in the Big Apple dispose of 12,000 metric tons a day. The private trash collection industry has often been criticized as being infiltrated by organized crime. If the Staten Island dump were to actually close as allegedly planned in 2002, this would represent a gigantic increase in the sector alleged to be dominated by "the mob."

This is a problem that affects every level of society, from groups of nations under the United Nations, to the importation of waste from all over the Bay Area to East and West Marin.

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