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Dumping on Africa: West exports its industrial wastes

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1988


Children have been playing on a mountain of ash on the island of Kassa off Conakry, capital of the West African nation of Guinea. This is not unusual in a third-world country, where scavenging garbage can be a means of survival. The waste on Kassa, however, is unlikely to yield anything but danger. It is toxic incinerator ash - transported from Philadelphia.

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In recent years, as industrialized countries have begun running out of economical means of disposing of industrial and municipal wastes, they are finding it financially attractive to ship them to developing countries.

``Dumping on the third world is a response to the economics of waste disposal,'' says Jim Vallette of the environmental organization Greenpeace in Washington. ``The cost has increased tremendously as regulations have tightened and landfills have decreased.''

The dumping of toxic waste in the third world has become a touchy political issue. ``There's a great deal of sensitivity when industrial countries send their waste to countries that lack the technology and infrastructure to accept and treat it,'' says an official of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Philadelphia's deputy streets commissioner, Bruce Gledhill, says his city did not itself make the choice to ship its ash to Guinea. ``The two companies that proposed to do business with us proposed out-of-country solutions. ... Philadelphia is obligated to look at the least costly means of disposal as long as they are legal and environmentally sound.'' He says receiving countries must draw up and enforce their own regulations for handling wastes. ``I cannot be someone else's government. I would never suggest anything less than full disclosure and full guidelines on how materials should be used.''

The Guinean government has demanded that the ash on Kassa be removed by the Norwegian company that dumped it, and a ship is on its way to do so. Mr. Gledhill says Philadelphia has just signed a contract to dispose of its waste for the next 6 years in Pennsylvania landfills.

According to Greenpeace, more than 50 plans to ship waste from the US and Europe to developing nations have been recorded in the past year. In most cases, the prospective recipients have rejected them.

``I don't think anybody has a grip on the extent of the waste trade,'' Mr. Vallette says. ``What we are witnessing in the last three months is an appalling explosion of schemes to ship wastes to Africa. We're also seeing a tremendous backlash in Africa to stop it.''

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) last month condemned the practice in nonbinding resolutions. At a summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) last weekend, leaders set up a monitoring system called ``Dumpwatch'' and resolved to tighten sanctions against dumping. This week Ivory Coast announced a draft law setting severe penalties for those who dump toxic waste on its land or in its waters.

Oumarou Youssoufou, OAU ambassador to the United Nations, says, ``We are developing countries. We do not have industries, and we know very little about these toxic wastes. Some unscrupulous ... businessmen have taken advantage of our ignorance.''

Controversy has also arisen over the prices being offered to countries to permit dumping.

Waste disposal within the US or Europe can cost hundreds of dollars a ton. Recently, Guinea-Bissau was offered $40 a ton to take 15 million tons of very hazzardous waste from Detroit. Guinea-Bissau has suspended negotiations on the deal.

Despite the comparatively low payments offered, says Vallette, ``a lot of money is to be made'' from waste disposal. ``These are multimillion-dollar deals.''

Foreign and African officials have been involved in dumping deals, resulting in arrests in Guinea, the Congo, and Nigeria.