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Launching Real Solutions To Our Toxic Legacy

Opinion by Jim Puckett, published in Seattle Times - April 12, 2000

The Seattle Times should take the time to learn more about the global PCB picture before they accuse the environment and labor communities of "showing-off" (April 10, editorial) when we blocked the unloading of PCB wastes, forcing them to return to the Department of Defense (DOD) installation in Japan.

There are an estimated 3.5 million pounds of PCB wastes in DOD installations on foreign soil. This figure does not PCB wastes found on US territories overseas such as Guam, and Saipan. Yet even these huge quantities of US military PCB wastes don't begin to adequately describe the staggering proportions of the "toxic iceberg" lurking beneath the surface of last week's shipment onboard the "Wan He".

An estimated 3.4 billion pounds or 1.7 million tons (not counting former USSR) of PCBs have been produced to date. Now, under a newly negotiated United Nations treaty on "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs) these deadly compounds among others have been targeted for accelerated decommissioning and destruction. When one considers that the above figures represent pure PCBs originally produced, when in actuality PCB wastes are typically highly diluted, the potential volume of "PCB wastes" awaiting global disposal become astronomical. And that's just one of the many more POPS slated for disposal.

Nobody believes that the destruction of chemicals such as PCBs is not a laudable, serious objective. However a global debate now rages on how best to accomplish it.

The status-quo method of dealing with the problem best described as "ship and burn" will, if perpetuated, involve not one, but hundreds of thousands of such shipments around the world. The shipping of such wastes will create great potential for spills, and exposure to marine environments and port workers in Seattle and elsewhere.

Even more dangerous, the current waste policy involves burning the PCB wastes in incinerators -- in North America this means either in poor communities in Louisiana and Texas, or in the great open spaces of the west. These incinerators have the nasty but unbreakable habit of creating even more toxic POPs by-products -- dioxins and furans which are two of the most toxic chemicals known, and extremely lethal to wildlife.

Thus the current "ship and burn" response to the global problem of POPs destruction fails to really solve the problem but rather creates an international "toxic shell game" where toxic wastes will be shuttled around the world according to the dictates of a free market, seeking out the path of least resistance -- the cheapest and dirtiest incinerators and landfills available (ala Trans-Cycle Industries where the Wan He waste was destined). The "ship and burn" practice also ensures that while POPs are destroyed, new and worse ones are created, perpetuating our toxic legacy rather than ending it.

So what is the solution to historically produced PCBs? The citizens of Seattle need only harken back to the mid-1980s when Seattle City Light was faced with a similar situation when large amounts of PCB contaminated fuel oil was discovered in the Lake Union Steam Generating Plant. At the time, the City of Seattle was persuaded by the environmentalists to avoid burning the wastes in boilers and instead of subjecting the nearby community to toxic emissions, opted to utilize on-site mobile chemical detoxification technology. This was duly accomplished and hailed as a great success.

Now, almost two decades later the technologies for chemical and biological destruction of PCBs in processes that don't create dioxins and furans are even better developed and more widely available. The only reason the DOD has not pursued these options is that until now they have been able to avoid a public discussion on the best solution.

But all of that changed with last week's blockade. Until that moment, packing the wastes off in a commercial containership to a fly-by-night waste firm in Northern Ontario without the necessary permits, for eventual burning in a highly polluting incinerator in Alberta, Canada, seemed like some kind of answer. Now, following the blockade, the government has been awakened to the fact that the public has other ideas.

Thanks to the public action in our ports, the government finally will be forced to explore safer and saner solutions. The Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX) and the Basel Action Network (BAN) believe that this DOD embarrassment and waste bottle-neck now presents a moment of opportunity for the government and all of us. Now that it is abundantly clear that the "ship and burn" option is "dead in the water," we can, as a nation commit ourselves to solutions that actually solve problems rather than simply move them -- to an incinerator near you.

-- Jim Puckett has worked on global toxic issues for over 15 years. He is currently a Director of the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX) in Seattle and Coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN) a global net of activists working to end the free trade in toxic wastes.

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