Exporting hazardous and toxic wastes to Third World countries is a growth industry. The exported material includes heavy metal residues and chemical-contaminated wastes, pharmaceutical refuse, and municipal sewage sludge and incinerator ash. The risks involved for countries that accept our wastes range from contamination of groundwater and crops to birth defects and cancer.
Traditionally, the majority of U.S. toxic waste exports have gone to Canada where regulations are less stringent than in the U.S. But now the most abrupt increase is in shipments to the Third World where the regulations are either nonexistent or sketchily enforced. Creating the search for new overseas markets is an explosion in the volume of recorded hazardous wastes being produced in the U.S. According to the General Accounting Office, the amount rose from about 9 million metric tons in 1970 to at least 247 million in 1984; other experts place, the current figure close to 400 million metric tons.
U.S. officials, aware of the sensitive legal and foreign policy questions involved, are reluctant to crack down on illegal dumpers and, in fact, the government itself is responsible for generating a significant portion of the hazardous waste exports. One large illegal operation broken up last year received more than half its toxic wastes from various branches of the Federal government, mainly the military.
Some examples of what is happening as discovered by the authors using court records, interviews, and the Freedom of Information Act: Philadelphia is planning to ship 600,000 tons of ash residue a year from its municipal incinerator to Panama which plans to use the materials as landfill for roadbeds;
U.S. sludge may end up in the tiny British Caribbean colony of Turks and Caicos Islands which proposes to use it as fertilizer; L.P.T., a company with offices in American Samoa and California, is seeking approval to build an incinerator in American Samoa to burn U.S. wastes and export the ash to the Philippines where it would be used as landfill;
Western Pacific Waste Repositories, based in Carson City, Nevada, is proposing to build a hazardous waste storage and treatment plant on Erikub atoll, an uninhabited area of the Marshall Islands.
The key U.S. government officials responsible for monitoring waste traffic claim they are powerless. “Under the federal system, we only have control over what’s in the country,” says Wendy Grieder, an official in the EPA’s Office of International Activities. “Once it leaves, we can’t do anything about it.”
Finally, exported wastes may return to haunt us in a very direct way. “It’s possible that we could send sludge to the Caribbean and they might use it on, say, spinach or other vegetables,” warned Grieder. And since the Food and Drug Administration checks only a small portion of the food that comes into the U.S., exported hazardous wastes could easily end up on our dinner table.
THE NATION, 10/3/87 “The Export of U.S. Toxic Wastes,” by Andrew Porterfield and David Weir, pp front cover, 341-344.