Each year 2.2 million tons of hazardous waste cross national borders, turning the world into a global dumping ground. Looking at just one toxic target, Taiwan, provides an insight to the enormity of the problem. Shipments of scrap metal, 70% of it from the United States, arrive nearly every day on the docks of Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Harbor. These shipments contain transformers filled with PCB-contaminated oil, old electrical equipment insulated with asbestos, and used batteries containing poisonous lead and acid. Because most scrap-metal exports are exempt from environmental controls in the U.S., and other countries, it is left to the importing countries, like Taiwan, to deal with the dangers of recycling this waste. As the search to find more toxic waste dump sites becomes more intense, there is rising concern that the waste now being exported is producing potential Love Canals all over the world.
Eugene Chien, head of Taiwan’s newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, claims that his country’s problem has become so serious, that in the past year, students, in schools near scrap-burning sites, have had to wear masks in the classroom to cope with the pollution.
The situation, in terms of health hazards, is so critical that Taiwan’s EPA decided to phase out the country’s scrap-metal industry by 1993. So far, Chien has met with resistance from government representatives from the United States. Officials from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office refused his initial plea for help in eliminating export licenses from scrap companies in the U.S. “To our surprise,” Chien said “the U.S. government says that because of the free trade … (Taiwan must) open the door for scrap metal.”
Meanwhile, toxic waste kings, such as Joe Chen, look for new sites to pollute. Chen, owner of Tung Tai Trading Corporation with headquarters just south of San Francisco, constantly travels around the U.S. to visit his scrap suppliers and then flies to Asia to supervise deliveries. A major importer of Taiwan’s toxic waste, Chen readily concedes that the scrap-metal industry has profited at the expense of Taiwan’s rivers, air, and soil. Nonetheless, incensed over Taiwan’s decision to phase out the industry, Chen protests “For the last thirty years, the reason why Taiwan is so rich is by buying this kind of junk. This is what makes Taiwan what it is today.” However, as space becomes limited and opposition increases, Chen has been forced to look elsewhere for dumping locations. His latest target: The People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan and China are not alone in facing the Faustian bargain, receiving much-needed hard currency in exchange for assuming the task of disposing of hazardous waste that the United States and the rest of the developed world does not want. Developing countries as diverse as Nigeria and Brazil face the same bitter choice.
The United States alone generates more than 500 million tons of hazardous waste a year, more than two tons a year for every man, woman, and child in the country, and nearly ten times that of any other nation.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: DAN PARR
SOURCE: Center for Investigative Reporting, 530 Howard St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105, DATE: November/December 1990 (Mother Jones Magazine)
TITLE: “Toxics `R Us”
AUTHOR: DAN NOYES
COMMENTS: The “Toxics `R Us” article in Mother Jones was the result of a larger investigation conducted by the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) since 1986 concerning the export of hazardous waste around the world. In 1990, CIR’s efforts in this area produced a Public Broadcasting System “Frontline” special hosted by Bill Moyers called “Global Dumping Ground,” and a companion book by the same title. The “Toxics `R Us” article is a special treatment of information contained in both the book and the documentary that resulted from investigative reporting by Dan Noyes, Lowell Bergman, and William Kistner at CIR. This reporting on the global effects of “recycling” was new and original work that had not appeared in the mainstream U.S. press before. Investigative journalist Dan Noyes said that while “The American press and public widely believe that `recycling’ is a major solution to our environmental problems with waste disposal, the far-reaching effects of sending U.S. scrap metal wastes to Third World nations for reprocessing has been completely overlooked. After years of sending U.S. waste overseas, particularly to Latin America and Taiwan, for `recycling,’ this story reveals just how dangerous this seemingly benign business can be and how the export of this waste has been debated heatedly by U.S. government officials, who have sided with business and free trade concerns over environmental destruction and harmful health effects.” Noyes believes that “The general public needs to know that their own problems with waste are actually international concerns that could affect relations between countries and the quality of health and the environment worldwide.” The importance of publicizing issues that have been overlooked or underreported by the mass media was reinforced by what happened since the PBS documentary and the article appeared. As Noyes points out “Since our reporting on battery exports and scrap metal recycling appeared in late 1990, we have received calls from newspapers and television stations nationwide asking for help in following up on the story. We are also negotiating to produce a version of the documentary and book in Great Britain, to be available by mid-1991 in bookstores and to air on the BBC’s Channel Four. The story elicited interest from the United Nations, the U.S. and Taiwan EPAs (where a top official in Taiwan wrote back `to applaud your wonderful program’ and to `hope that enough of the American public have had the opportunity to view it and be informed of the reality of the global dumping ground’), and from other countries.”