A Hazardous Export - US Toxic Wastes

IS an environmental disaster necessary to prod the national government into taking steps to regulate the export of hazardous wastes? The Love Canal episode triggered passage of the Superfund, just as the ruptured hull of the Exxon Valdez finally shoved oil tanker safety proposals out of the legislative shoals. Perhaps the only hope for curbing the growing American reliance on dumping its hazardous wastes around the globe will be a similarly riveting and embarrassing event. But can we afford to wait? At the very time the United States calls for multinational cooperation to thwart aggression, many of the nations pivotal to construction of a new world order continue to be targets of American waste products. Many are woefully ill-equipped to dispose of hazardous waste in a safe manner, and yet are tempted by the money dangled before them.

Under such conditions, these wastes pose a sizable threat to exposed populations. The wastes have also demonstrated a remarkable capacity to migrate back to the US through air and water pollution from nations such as Canada and Mexico. Furthermore, the very existence of this convenient disposal outlet delays the day when Americans finally get serious about addressing their own hazardous waste problems.

The volume of wastes the US generates hovers around 250 million metric tons per year and continues to grow, in large part because many industries and state governments resist waste reduction and recycling. At the same time, increasingly strict domestic standards for waste disposal have closed countless old facilities while local political opposition has made it virtually impossible to site new disposal facilities.

Understandably, Congress and the Bush administration approach waste exportation with great caution; every congressional district generates hazardous wastes but few are willing to assure their safe disposal.

A series of legislative hearings held in 1988 and 1989 offered an eerie array of waste dumping exploits, many of which occurred without advance knowledge by the host government or the US. Perhaps the best-known of these episodes was the two-year, five-continent odyssey of a ship searching for a place to dump more than 13,000 tons of Philadelphia incinerator ash. These hearings gave legislators and administration officials a platform from which to express their outrage, but strong political opposition to new restrictions is expected to thwart serious legislative action on this issue. In fact, the Bush administration has played an active role in watering down international waste trading accords, such as the 1989 Basel Convention.

As a result, there is no reliable measure of the volumes or types of wastes exported each year, much less any effective monitoring system to assure safe transport and disposal upon arrival. The US Environmental Protection Agency and State Department are confined to obtaining approval notices from prospective host governments. They may not block questionable exports or examine the conditions under which the wastes will be handled abroad. The staff authorized to oversee this entire process is less than th at required to run a neighborhood gas station.

In the case of exports to our largest waste trading partner, Canada, a 1986 bilateral agreement further streamlined the approval process. All American hazardous waste exports are assumed acceptable unless the Canadian government raises objections, which it rarely does. Canadian hazardous waste disposal plants in Ontario and Quebec continue to lure American wastes. Their advertisements emphasize that compliance with Canadian environmental standards for hazardous waste is far less costly than compliance w ith those in most states.

American policy could close the export escape route. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have endorsed a virtual ban on all such exports. Other policy options include a modified ban, whereby waste exports would only be allowed under very limited - and well-monitored - conditions, with substantial penalties for noncompliance. Just as the US government should be reluctant to extend the scope of free trade agreements to authorize widespread export of nuclear and chemical weaponry, it needs also to take a more active role in controlling the export of other products that threaten human health.

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