US resists limits on international toxic waste trade

Many developing countries want a trade ban. The United States wants to keep markets open. The commodity in question: toxic waste.

As delegates from dozens of industrialized and developing nations meet beginning today at a United Nations hazardous waste conference in Geneva, the lines are drawn for a very candid exchange of views, if not a battle royal, between North and South.

The UN talks, which began in Geneva in February, and continued in Caracas in June, are aimed at concluding a so-called ``Global Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes.''

``This used to be a very obscure issue,'' says Jim Vallette, who has done extensive research on the international toxics trade for the environmental organization Greenpeace. ``But documentation and exposure in the last few months has alarmed developing countries to the extent that they are at this session and demanding protection.''

Strapped for foreign exchange, many developing countries accept shipments of toxic or nuclear wastes with little understanding of the health and environmental dangers they present, development and environmental experts say. Not to mention that ``a lot of this picture is illegal and surreptitious business deals,'' says Jane Bloom, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attending the Geneva talks.

Given such concerns, international environmental organizations and many Third World governments have called for a total ban on international toxic waste traffic.

In contrast, developed nations, particularly the US, continue to resist efforts to limit the toxics trade. Furthermore, critics of US policy complain, the Reagan administration refuses to support even basic rules which would prevent such wastes from being dumped on countries that are unequipped to deal with them.

In particular, a measure under consideration at the negotiations would keep exporters from sending shipments to countries that are not party to the international agreement. Signators of the accord would have to certify that they could deal with the wastes responsibly.

US officials familiar with the administration's position say there is some sentiment for the proposal among US regulators, but that the White House has put a hold on any support for the measure until after the presidential election.

According to Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, many countries have acted to discourage the flow of international hazardous waste shipments since the last round of UN negotiations:

Togo has passed a law banning the import, sale, transport, or storage of toxic or radioactive wastes.

A court in Guinea sentenced four government officials to four years imprisonment for their involvement in the dumping on Guinean territory of 15,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia.

Ivory Coast enacted a law under which persons convicted of importing wastes will face prison terms up to 20 years and fines up to $1.6 million.

Nigeria announced that anyone convicted of dumping hazardous waste in that country could be executed.

The Italian Cabinet approved a decree Sept. 1 banning waste exports from Italy to Third World countries. Italy will, however, permit waste shipments to industrialized nations.

In addition, numerous international organizations - including the Organization of African Unity, the European Parliament, the 101-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and the International Organization of Consumer Unions - are on record in support of a total ban on hazardous waste trade. The World Bank has said it will not finance any projects in any of its borrowing countries that involve the disposal of hazardous or toxic wastes from another country.

Current US policy is to allow hazardous waste exports to foreign countries that provide ``prior and informed consent'' - written confirmation that such wastes will be accepted for import. At least five bills introduced in the last Congress sought to support various international waste trade management schemes, from a trade ban to permit and regulatory systems. None passed.

The UN negotiations that open today are expected to intensify the debate over the waste trade, largely because more representation is expected from developing nations.

In addition, environmentalists say they plan to push hard for a total trade ban, rather than a detailed regulatory scheme. ``Any regulatory regime legitimizes exports,'' says David Wirth, who works on international environmental issues for the NRDC, ``and tends to allow for abuses around the edges.''

The thrust of any international agreement on hazardous waste shipments, Wirth and other environmentalists stress, should be reducing and recycling waste at the source - in the industrialized world.

But some experts claim such a view is short-sighted. Waste ``exchanges are the wave of the future,'' says Bonnie Ram, a waste consultant formerly with the Federation of American Scientists.

Because developing nations have fewer resources, they are more disposed toward recycling, Ms. Ram says. And while much hazardous waste may not be appropriate for shipment to other countries, ``there are just some things we don't use, which other countries might use,'' Ram says.

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