THE Thatcher government has decided to meet head-on a determined environmentalist campaign to stop the import of large quantities of toxic chemicals destined for burning in a special British plant. At issue is a growing dilemma over how to dispose of the poisonous byproducts of industry, in both developed and developing countries.
The government's hard-line defense of the profitable trade in destroying toxic waste brought into Britain from abroad follows Greenpeace's success in preventing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from Canada from being unloaded at the port of Tilbury, near London. It was to have been the first of 15 shipments.
Later, 38 British ports were reported to have refused entry to the PCBs, which had to be returned to Canada. PCBs are highly poisonous chemicals and are thought to be carcinogenic.
Greenpeace's success drew a sharp blast from Chris Patten, the newly appointed environment secretary. He accused environmentalists of playing on public fears about toxic waste. Mr. Patten said he would rather see dangerous chemicals destroyed in Britain under controlled conditions than dumped in countries lacking the facilities to eliminate them. Another danger, he said, was that toxic waste from third-world countries would be dumped at sea, polluting the world's oceans.
Greenpeace replied that the government's commitment to destroying - for profit - toxic chemicals from countries which do not wish to process them was ``turning Britain into the dustbin of the world's waste.''
The PCBs from Canada which sparked the controversy were produced in a factory fire in Quebec. Rather than burn the chemicals themselves, the Canadians contracted with Rechem, a British company, to destroy them. When Greenpeace heard that the first shipment was nearing Tilbury they met the vessel and affixed a skull and crossbones to its hull.
In the ensuing uproar it was learned that ports all around the country had misgivings about accepting toxic chemicals such as PCBs. British government policy allows the import of toxic waste, which is then sent to specially built high-temperature incinerators.
Rechem has a plant in Wales which doubled its profits to more than $11 million last year. The company plans to spend $47 million in the next three years to expand its waste-destruction facilities. It is estimated that imports into Britain of toxic waste have increased from 4,000 tons in 1981 to more than 80,000 tons last year.
The Thatcher government faces a problem if it continues with its hard line on toxic waste burning. ``Green'' issues are fast moving up the British political agenda. At last June's election for the European Parliament, Green candidates doubled their seats. Green candidates from Britain, however, won no seats.
Britain's ruling Conservatives could lose a lot of votes at the next general election if in the meantime they scorn environmental arguments. By taking an aggressive line, Patten hopes to persuade the public that, as well as being a useful moneymaker, toxic waste destruction is both safe and beneficial to the global environment.
Greenpeace counters that the handling of poisonous shipments creates dangers at ports of entry. The waste then has to be transported by road and rail, creating further potential hazards.
When the first batch of Canadian waste arrived at Tilbury, a local member of Parliament complained strongly, urged on by his constituents. Government officials say Greenpeace itself is divided between those who want a total ban on waste imports and others who see some value to the argument that the chemicals are better destroyed in Britain than allowed to pile up in other countries.
Patten will continue to argue that risks from PCBs arise when they are not destroyed and are allowed to accumulate. He contends that Greenpeace is deliberately missing the point. But a Greenpeace spokesman said: ``No one has been scaremongering. We have come out with hard scientific facts.''
There is a strong likelihood that when MPs return from their August holiday many will find letters waiting for them arguing against the handling of toxic waste from foreign countries. A high proportion of parliamentary constituencies in this island nation contain ports, including major population centers such as London and Liverpool. MPs in such areas will not wish to lose votes by supporting a policy that many voters are coming to regard as dangerous.