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Garbage In, Garbage Out

by Bill Stonehill, The Morrock News Service, Contributor - May 19, 2000

Last Sunday a US cargo ship pulled away from an American base near Yokohama loaded with 14 containers full of PCB-contaminated waste, accompanied by media hoopla, a Greenpeace escort and considerable amounts of bare-faced Japanese hypocrisy. News station helicopters clattered over the US base, photographing waste storage sites, and demonstrators chanted outside the gates of the US base as the mayor of Yokohama gave blustery, finger-pointing, anti-American sound bites to Japanese TV.

PCB stands for polychlorinated biphenyl, a synthetic chemical whose use is now broadly restricted. At one time PCBs were used in products ranging from adhesives to microwave ovens and various electrical equipment. PCBs don’t break down and they don’t decay. If they get into the water table, they stay there forever, or until they are absorbed by animals or humans. They are probably carcinogenic, and are definitely known to cause birth defects, gastric disorders and skin diseases. This is something you don’t want Johnny to play in and you don’t want dumped in your back yard.

Anyone could sympathize with the Japanese not wanting PCB-contaminated waste in their country, except for the fact that not a bit of it was American and almost all of it came from Japan. There was one other small problem, as the US Embassy put it in a refreshing departure from its usual double talk “Currently, there are no appropriate disposal facilities (for PCBs) in Japan.”

In other words, there’s no way to get rid of PCBs in Japan and no Japanese facility that can destroy them. What the Japanese apparently do is ship them to foreign countries and hope for the best. Following EPA guidelines, the US armed forces had intended to ship the PCB contaminated items to Canada, where they would be incinerated at an EPA-approved facility.

The PCB garbage consisted of transformers, transformer oil, circuit breakers and related small parts. Most of it had been bought in Japan and the rest in other Asian countries. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Rather than going to all the trouble of hauling supplies from America, the American taxpayer could save a bundle by buying all these supplies in Japan.

But when it came time to dispose of them, the Japanese were there screaming themselves red in the face and waving signs that they weren’t going to allow those rotten Yankees to dump PCB garbage in Japan. Even if it was made in Japan.

“And I’m just left wonderin’ if it's them or me that’s truly insane,” as Bob Dylan sang.

When the 14 containers of waste arrived in Canada, the local branch of Greenpeace protested so strongly -- after all, it was Japanese PCB and not Canadian PCB -- that the Canadian government revoked the import permit, and the garbage set sail for the USA. Sorry folks, the USA has a law prohibiting the import of foreign made waste contaminated with PCBs.

So back across the Pacific went a shipload of garbage to the US Base in Yokohama in yet another Flying Dutchman episode of wandering garbage ships, events that have become more and more common in recent years.

Now that it’s on the way to Wake Island, there’s a good possibility that it will pass on the way a Phillipino ship hauling back 10 containers of Japanese garbage illegally dumped in the Philippines. A Japanese trading company shipped 10 containers to the Philippines of what was labeled as “scrap metal” on the invoice. On arrival, the containers were found to be full of used bandages, assorted organic leftovers from operations, used diapers and in general a stomach churning assortment of filth. It is difficult to describe the level of anger in the Philippines over this incident. The Japanese Embassy put out some belated mumblings, and police officials were sent from Japan to check the containers.

A check of the company in Japan showed it to be a phony shell company, perhaps set up for this one operation. As soon as the news hit the papers, the president of the company took off on the run, and the employees mysteriously vanished. However, the company president was nabbed this week in Niigata on the Japan Sea, where he had gotten involved in a traffic accident. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will happen next.

Attempts to dump noxious waste in other people’s back yards have become increasingly common in Asia. It is known for a fact that Russian ships are releasing high levels of radiation off the coast of Siberia, and a plan by the Taiwan nuclear regulatory community to quietly ship large amounts of potentially dangerous nuclear waste to North Korea was recently nipped in the bud. However, the champion polluters seem to be the Japanese.

Dangerous and even deadly Japanese garbage is turning up more and more in Asian countries, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, and the other countries are getting fed up with it and sending it back.

Now that the garbage dumped in the Philippines is on its way back to Japan, the Japanese are going to have to figure out what to do with them. But one thing is for sure. There’s no room on Wake Island for it.

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