Boston — 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.
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.
In Nigeria, Italian and West German ships brought between 3,500 and 4,000 tons of waste to dump in the port of Koko. It is believed to contain radioactive material and one of the most toxic substances in existence. One Italian is said to be among the detainees. The Nigerian government says it intends to try and execute convicted offenders - including foreigners. Bonnie Ram, of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, says the waste could be from Europe.
In 1985, two Americans, Charles and Jack Colbert, were jailed in the US for exporting 1,500 gallons of toxic waste to Zimbabwe under the guise of cleaning fluid. There are also reports, Ms. Ram says, of radioactive wastes dumped in Benin, allegedly from France; French officials say they have no knowledge of the incidents.
Despite the air of scandal surrounding the issue, some African countries continue to make arrangements to dispose of foreign waste. A company in the Netherlands, Zatec Services, plans to ship chemical and industrial wastes to three African nations, where landfills are to be built by a British contractor beginning soon.
``There are some advantages in African countries above countries with a lot of people,'' says Bernard van Zadelhof, president of Zatec. ``It rains less, so the soil underground is almost water-tight.'' However, he adds that ``it is unwise to put waste in a desert where it is not controlled and where the wind blows it or where people can get to it.'' Mr. Van Zadelhof says the ``depots,'' or landfills, scheduled to be built will be completely lined and equipped with drainage systems.
(Researchers say disposing of waste in areas with high rainfall - such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Nigeria, and the Congo - is highly dangerous because of the likelihood of contaminating ground water.)
Van Zadelhof says he already has many prospective customers for his venture. ``If I wanted to, I could have made contracts for hundreds of thousands of tons of waste a year from the US and Europe. But we won't accept contracts before the landfill is ready. The contracts will be subject to import authorization in Africa when the depots are ready and authorized. At least six months from now the first depot will be ready.''
Meanwhile, government representatives from 40 countries recently met in Venezuela to draft an international convention (to be completed next year) that would regulate the ``waste trade.''
According to Greenpeace, the industrialized countries wish to officially legalize the practice in cases of ``prior informed consent.'' This would enable industrialized nations to dispose of their wastes, and the developing countries to make some profit as a dumping ground, as long as the shippers fully inform receiving countries of any hazards involved.
``The convention appears to be modeled after existing US and European regulations which have done nothing to prevent the flow of wastes from industrialized countries to less-developed countries,'' says Vallette. ``We see no moral or scientific justification for the shipment of wastes from one country to another. We would like to see it out-and-out banned.''
In the US Congress, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan is currently drafting a bill that would ban all exports of incinerator ash and ban or severely curtail the export of hazardous waste. Congressional hearings on this are scheduled for this month. A Senate bill calls for public hearings before exporting waste.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the limited ability of developing countries to process waste and prevent health hazards.
``Most of the recipient nations are so poor, and have such limited disposal capacities and such rudimentary infrastructure for dealing with waste, that it poses a large threat,'' says Hilary French of Worldwatch, a Washington-based research organization. ``The waste is going to end up in inadequate facilities with serious public health consequences.''
Vallete says the use of incineration and landfills is ``an interim solution,'' and that there is no safe method of waste disposal. ``The responsible way of responding to this problem is to reduce and prevent the generation of these wastes at the source.''