Sequels in other countries to the chemical-waste pollution of Love Canal in the United States are causing international concern. Incidents of contamination involving evacuation of nearby residents have also taken place in Germany, Britain, and other West European countries. And reports that American firms were casting about for dumping and processing sites in the third world have prompted a rapid counterreaction in the United Nations.
The controversies surrounding these developments are seen by both international authorities and chemical industry representatives as pointing to the growing problem of chemical-waste disposal.
Just a few weeks ago, some 800 residents of a housing development in Lekkerkerk, the Netherlands, had to be evacuated following the discovery of poisonous chemical wastes in the nearby groundwater.The chemicals apparently leaked from sealed casks buried on the site around 1970 before the development of the housing units. Although no sickness had been reported, the government felt the houses might have to be destroyed and the contaminated ground dug up at a cost of between $75 million and $100 million.
There have been reports that East Germany has offered the use of a waste-disposal facility near the city of Lubeck close to the West German border for use by West Europeans and that contracts have been signed for such transport and dumping.
Reported plans by American firms eyeing dumping sites in the third world also prompted a response from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, recently. One firm, Nedlog Technology Group Inc., of Arvada, Colo., was negotiating with Sierra Leone and other unidentified African and Latin American countries for the construction of waste-recycling plants to handle 1 million tons of toxic substances annually.
Government officials said that other companies also were considering dumping sites in the third world to solve disposal problems made more acute by increasingly stringent laws and public opposition in the United States and other developed countries.
That resulted in a disclaimer from Sierra Leone's President Siaka P. Stevens and a furor in the African press. The subject was also taken up at the annual meeting of the UNEP governing council in Nairobi recently. UNEP executive director Mostafa K. Tolba told the gathering attended by representatives of 79 countries that "governmental and nongovernmental quarters in some Western countries are protesting against the use of third-world countries as dumping grounds for hazardous wastes. Developing countries are calling for assistance in identifying hazards in products which they import."
Yet, he said, such shipments from developed to developing countries were continuing "on the pretext that the environmental carrying capacity of the latter is still high."
The meeting adopted a resolution urging governments to ensure adequate protective measures for handling and disposing of such wastes. And it called on the governments to develop methods of controlling the international transfers of hazardous chemicals between countries. The action was sponsored by the United States and several European and Latin American countries. The UNEP will study the problem in the coming months.
In the meantime, the US government is said to be working out a policy on hazardous chemicals but does not regulate the shipment of toxic substances on the grounds that it is up to the importing countries to decide. It has a system of notifying other countries of products banned or limited in the United States so they can take action if they choose.