Philly Waste Go Home
Multinational Monitor - February 1998
January marked the tenth anniversary of one of the longest running and most notorious cases of U.S. waste dumping in the Third World. And for the first time in those 10 years, there is a fighting chance that 4,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia, dumped in Gonaives Bay, Haiti will finally be coming home.
The saga began in the mid-1980s, when Philadelphia encountered serious difficulties in disposing of ash from its municipal waste incinerator. The reason was common to ash generated by mass-burn facilities around the country: incineration concentrates toxic metals in the ash, making it a threat to soil and groundwater wherever it is buried. As landfills for toxic waste became controversial and expensive, unscrupulous brokers looked overseas for a "solution."
The Philadelphia ash was especially problematic, as it contained detectable levels of dioxins and furans, as well as relatively high levels of lead and cadmium. (Despite these levels, all U.S. municipal incinerator ash was automatically exempted from hazardous waste regulations, because it was derived from household waste. That exemption has since been eliminated.) Philadelphia eventually stockpiled a whopping quarter million tons of the cinders at its Roxborough facility. In Fall 1987, it even attempted to export the entire ash mountain to Panama for road building, a scheme that was rejected by the Panamanian authorities after a Greenpeace exposé.
In September 1996, 14,000 tons of the accumulated ash did leave Philadelphia, on the cargo ship Khian Sea. But the vessel quickly ran into a series of improbable rejections. Over the next 16 months, the Khian Sea's caustic cargo was turned away by three U.S. states and five Caribbean island nations. It traveled as far as West Africa looking for a home, to no avail.
Finally, in the last days of 1987, armed with a bogus import certificate falsely labeling the cargo as fertilizer, the Khian Sea docked at the Sedren wharf in Gonaives in northwest Haiti. In January 1988, the crew offloaded some 4,000 tons of the ash, and left it on a beach adjacent to the decrepit pier.
The dumping caused an uproar almost immediately. One crew member, confronted by environmentalists from Port au Prince, went so far as to eat a handful of the ash on camera, saying "here's what I think of its toxicity," as he munched on his snack.
The authorities were not impressed. The Haitian Commerce Minister ordered the crew to reload the ash and leave, but the Khian Sea left in the middle of the night without reloading the ash.
The ash has remained on Haitian shores for 10 years.
All manner of attempts to persuade the Philadelphia and U.S. authorities to repatriate the ash have failed. Just two weeks after the dumping, a Greenpeace team returned from Gonaives to Philadelphia with samples of the ash and called on then-Mayor Wilson Goode to retrieve the ash. No response. Thousands of petitions were delivered without effect. The Haiti Communications Project spearheaded a mailing of little packets of the ash to Philadelphia to prod the city into action. No response. When the owners of the Khian Sea were convicted of perjury relating to the voyage of their vessel (they were never tried for the dumping in Haiti), Philadelphia officials asked the judge to consider requiring repatriation of the ash as part of the sentence. The judge gave them jail time instead. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United Nations Development Program sent a mission to the site, which recommended building a permanent containment facility in Haiti for the ash. No steps were taken to do so. Greenpeace asked the U.S. military to load the ash on its way home from restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government. No reply.
The only change since the original dumping was that a portion of the ash was moved to an unlined, uncovered, unmarked bunker a couple miles inland from the beach. A Greenpeace laboratory analysis of samples showed that heavy metals from the ash had begun to contaminate adjoining soil. Even the simplest precautions, such as fencing off the bunker and closing nearby salt drying fields, have not been taken.
The scandal of the Khian Sea and others like it led to the negotiation of a landmark international environmental treaty -- the Basel Convention -- which prohibits the export of toxic waste from the industrialized countries to the rest of the world. But that treaty does not cover past actions, and in any case the United States has refused to sign it.
Steps have been taken to redress the wrong perpetrated on Haiti, however, and by a surprising source: the City of New York.
Two years ago, the New York City Trade Waste Commission was created to rid the city's garbage industry of organized crime influence. As part of this effort, the Commission scrutinizes every company which applies for a license to haul New York trash. In Summer 1997, a company called Eastern Environmental Services, based in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, applied for the lucrative license. While vetting the company, Commission lawyer Russell Bixler discovered that the head of Eastern, Louis Paolino, was also a principal officer of Joseph Paolino and Sons, the company which had subcontracted to the operator of the Khian Sea for disposal of Philadelphia's ash. Paolino and Sons also owned Philadelphia's Pier 2, which burned down mysteriously just as the Khian Sea was about to dock there on its return from Haiti, and refused to repossess the remaining 10,000 tons of ash, preferring to sue the Khian Sea's owners. (The 10,000 tons of ash were eventually dumped at sea, according to testimony of the ship's captain.)
The Commission's study of Eastern was inconclusive; compared to many other companies in the business it was relatively clean, but Louis Paolino had a black mark on his past. The Commission decided to grant Eastern the license, but under two conditions: that it provide landfill space for the 5,000 tons of material from Haiti (4,000 tons of ash plus 1,000 tons of contaminated soil), and $100,000 toward the costs of shipping it to the United States. These conditions were required under an order signed by the company, which stands to make millions in the New York trash market.
However, the Commission's well-intentioned negotiations with Eastern fell a little short. A feasibility study recently carried out by Greater Caribbean Dredging, a New York-based company, estimates that it will cost about $300,000 to excavate, pack and barge the ash back to the United States, not including transport from the port in Philadelphia to one of Eastern's landfills in Pennsylvania. And the clock is ticking on raising the rest of the funds -- New York's agreement with Eastern expires in May.
With that in mind, Greenpeace and several Haitian groups have launched an emergency campaign to complete Project Return To Sender.
In January, pointing out that $100,000 amounted to only .004 percent of Philadelphia's annual budget, Greenpeace and the Haiti Communications Project called on Philadelphia's current mayor, Ed Rendell, to provide assistance.
The city's response was a brush off. Rendell's Chief of Staff Gregory Rost had given New York City a similar slap in the face in reply to the Trade Waste Commission's September request for $50,000. Rost called the $50,000 a "substantial sum" and said that any contribution made by Philadelphia would have to be "cost neutral." Privately, New York City officials are furious with the Philly mayor's response, which wrongly implies that New York has something to gain from this deal.
The U.S. State Department has responded somewhat more positively to Greenpeace's request for assistance, saying it has no objections to the project and asking the U.S. embassy in Port au Prince to provide advice and logistical assistance. But when it comes to hard cash, no dice, says a State Department spokesperson. But the pressure is building. In response to a press conference held by the Haitian environmental group COHPEDA in January in Port au Prince, Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fritz Longchamps committed $50,000 from the Haitian government for the project. He also instructed law firms representing President Preval and the Haitian government in the United States to lobby for a successful conclusion.
The scandal of the Khian Sea spans almost the entire nasty history of the international trade in toxic wastes. Project Return To Sender could represent the last chapter.
-- Kenny Bruno. Kenny Bruno, a contributing writer to Multinational Monitor, is a campaigner with Greenpeace.
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