Toxic Wastes and the New World Order, Part 1

by Mitchel Cohen

Z magazine, November 2000


Twelve years ago, the soon-to-be infamous barge, the Khian Sea, left the territorial waters of the United States and began circling the oceans in search of a country willing to accept its cargo: 14,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash.

First it went to the Bahamas, then to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau, and the Netherlands Antilles. Wherever it went, people gathered to protest its arrival. No one wanted the millions of pounds of Philadelphia municipal incinerator ash dumped in their country. Desperate to unload, the ship's crew lied about their cargo, hoping to catch a government unaware. Sometimes they identified the ash as "construction material," other times they said it was road fill, and still others "muddy waste." But environmental experts were generally one step ahead in notifying the recipients; no one would take it. That is, until it got to Haiti. There, U.S.-backed dictator Baby Doc Duvalier issued a permit for the "fertilizer," and 4,000 tons of the ash was dumped onto the beach in the town of Gonalves.

It didn't take long for public outcry to force Haitian officials to suddenly realize they weren't getting fertilizer. They canceled the import permit and ordered the waste returned to the ship. But the Khian Sea slipped away in the night, leaving thousands of tons of toxic ash on the beach.

For two more years the Khian Sea chugged from country to country trying to dispose of the remaining 10,000 tons of Philadelphia ash. The crew even painted over the barge's name. Still, no one was fooled into taking its toxic cargo. A crew member later testified that the waste was finally dumped into the Indian Ocean. The activist environmental group, Greenpeace, pressured the U.S. government to test the "fertilizer." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Greenpeace found it contained 1,800 pounds of arsenic, 4,300 pounds of cadmium, and 435,000 pounds of lead, dioxin, and other toxins. But no one would clean it up.

The cost of the cleanup at Gonalves had been estimated to be around $300,000. But Philadelphia lawyer Ed Rendell-then mayor of that city and now chair of the Democratic National Committee-refused to put up the funds, despite Philadelphia's $ 130 million budget surplus. Joseph Paolino and Sons, which had contracted with Amalgamated Shipping (owners of the Khian Sea garbage barge) to transport the waste ash, refused as well.

In July 1992, the U.S. Justice Department-under pressure from environmental groups throughout the world-finally filed indictments against two waste traders who had shipped and dumped the 14,000 tons of Philadelphia incinerator ash. Similar indictments were brought against three individuals and four corporations who illegally exported 3,000 tons of hazardous waste to Bangladesh and Australia, also labeled as fertilizer. But none of the waste traders were charged with dumping their toxic cargo at sea, nor with falsely labeling it fertilizer and abandoning it on the beaches of Haiti, Bangladesh, and Australia. They were charged with Iying to a grand jury.

Why? Because U.S. Iaw protects the traders, not the recipients of toxic wastes-and the World Trade Organization seeks to impose such laws internationally. In recent years, much of the waste from industrialized countries is exported openly, under the name of "recycled material." These are touted as "fuel" for incinerators generating energy in poor countries. "Once a waste is designated as 'recyclable' it is exempt from U.S. toxic waste law and can be bought and sold as if it were ice cream. Slags, sludges, and even dusts captured on pollution control filters are being bagged up and shipped abroad," writes Peter Montague in Rachel's Weekly. "These wastes may contain significant quantities of valuable metals, such as zinc, but they also can and do contain significant quantities of toxic by-products such as cadmium, lead and dioxins. The 'recycling' loophole in U.S. toxic waste law is big enough to float a barge through, and many barges are floating through it uncounted."

How Could Toxic Ash Be Fertilizer?

Every year, thousands of tons of "recycled" waste from the U.S., deceptively labeled as "fertilizer," are plowed into farms, beaches, and deserts in Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Brazil, and dozens of other countries. The Clinton administration has followed former President George Bush's lead in allowing U.S. corporations to mix incinerator ash and other wastes containing high concentrations of lead, cadmium, and mercury with agricultural chemicals. This is sold to unsuspecting or uncaring agencies and governments throughout the world.

These dangerous chemicals are considered "inert," since they play no active role as "fertilizer"-although they are very active in causing cancers and other diseases. Under U.S. Iaw, ingredients designated as "inert" are not required to be labeled or reported to the buyer.

This creative use of the terms "recycled" and "inert" are finding increasing application in domestic products as well. For instance, unlisted "inert ingredients," including chemicals known to be carcinogenic, were allowed to be mixed in with the Malathion and Pyrethroid insecticides sprayed in massive quantities over the population and environment of New York City in the Fall of 1999. Some of these "inert ingredients," propellants and synergists, such as the known carcinogen Piperonyl Butoxide (PBO), increase the toxicity of the deadly mist on mosquitoes. But they also dramatically increase the dangers to people and the environment. Other ingredients, such as the petroleum distillates found in most of the pesticides sprayed, impact the liver and immune system. The long-range health effects of pesticides (and their "inert," "recycled" ingredients) on people and ecosystems are already turning out to be severe.

The Clinton administration cracked down on refugees fleeing the death squads in Haiti in 1993, imprisoning many who were said to be HIV-positive in a concentration camp at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and returning many others to the torturers and toxic environment they were fleeing. The issue of the toxic " fertilizer" again came to the fore. Said one activist: "Instead of repatriating Haitian refugees to Haiti, the U.S. government should repatriate this toxic waste back to its own country."

Haiti, after all, has been a favorite dumping ground of corporate waste producers. The ecological devastation caused by toxic dumping in Haiti (and elsewhere) has generated an equally devastating health crisis, which is exacerbated by the forced removal of thousands of rural workers from their lands under orders from the International Monetary Fund. The lands are then confiscated and turned over to multinational agribusiness corporations, which monocrop genetically engineered cotton, coffee, and luxury items for export, making wholesome food much more difficult to come by.

Some of the dispossessed peasants are absorbed into sweatshops-euphemistically termed "enterprise" zones and more properly called "slave labor camps," subcontracted by such corporations as Disney, Sears, Kathy Lee, and Wal-Mart. There, even the few environmental regulations that exist in the rest of the country are suspended, dramatically increasing rates of cancers and tuberculosis. Pneumonia and other opportunistic infections ("opportunistic" in that they take advantage of immune systems ravaged by the wholesale destruction of the environment) continue to wreak havoc in Haiti. One of the first steps taken by the military junta there following its coup in September 1991 was to close down all the AIDS treatment and free health care programs that had been established under the brief Aristide government. As a consequence of the environmental devastation, clinic closings and exposure to toxins in food, air, and water, women refugees from Haiti now living in the U. S. exhibit a much higher rate of cervical cancer than the surrounding population.

In Nicaragua, a proposal to import hazardous waste and incinerator ash from Philadelphia generated a storm of protest from all sectors of the Nicaraguan population, although nothing of it was reported in the U. S . press. The revolutionary Sandinista party, which came to power in 1979 and which was voted out ten years later in the midst of intense counter-revolutionary warfare sponsored by the United States, led the opposition in the Nicaraguan congress. The only support for the proposal came from Steadman Fagoth, a Miskito Indian contra leader and follower of fascist evangelist Sun Myung Moon who, after the defeat of the Sandinista government, was rewarded by the new government by placing him in charge of "environmental concerns" in the Atlantic region of the country. The Nicaraguan Association of Biologists and Environmentalists countered that the heavy rainfall on the Atlantic Coast would cause the deadly components of ash to enter the aquatic ecosystem and cause severe damage to the water table, flora and fauna, as well as to human life.

"The rain washes heavy metals, such as mercury, nickel and arsenic into the ground, carrying them to rivers, puddles, creeks, the ocean and lakes. There, fish, snails, shrimp, etc. would be contaminated... [as well as] the fauna which is then eaten by birds and other animals as well as human beings.

"In this way the chemical compounds are transferred from small animals to human beings and accumulate in muscle tissue.

"Underground water sources would also be contaminated, as the water is absorbed through the soil. In this way the chemicals reach the water table and thus, wells and other sources used by people and entire communities.

"Plants would also be contaminated by absorbing the water and therefore all crops grown for human consumption.

"Finally, the wind would carry the ash considerable distances, even reaching distant towns and communities. Their inhabitants would absorb it through their respiratory systems. Domestic animals would also be poisoned." Faced with widespread resistance, the importation of hazardous waste was rejected...for the moment.

Worldwide opposition to toxic dumping is waking up the citizenry in the United States, where long-standing domestic opposition to toxic waste dumping and incineration is turning to out and out resistance. Beginning with the horror of the ironically named Love Canal toxic seepage of the early 1980s in upstate New York, local governments have been forced by irate residents to make it illegal for corporations to bury wastes or incinerator ash containing heavy metals in landfills (many of which are almost filled to capacity anyway, and continue to poison the soil and groundwater). But federal legislation still lags far behind. As we have seen, for 12 years toxic ash sat abandoned on the beaches of Bangladesh and Haiti, poisoning the environment, blowing in the wind.

But now, more than a decade after the fact, there has been some semblance of justice. Environmental and social justice groups have finally forced the U.S. government and entrepreneurs to take back the wastes they dumped on the beach at Gonalves.

The removal process was made to happen only by the constant pressure of environmental activists in the U.S. and Haiti. It took almost a year and required extensive cooperation between many entities. And it took a little bit of luck as well. Remember Paolino & Sons, Inc.? That was the firm that had been subcontracted by the City of Philadelphia to transport its waste, and which in turn hired the Khian Sea. Years later, Louis D. Paolino, the company's former head, attempted to obtain lucrative waste-hauling contracts in New York City through his new company, Eastern Environmental Services-since bought by Waste Management, Inc., which runs much of New York's extremely lucrative garbage industry. Before awarding new contracts or approving of the corporate buy-out, New York's Trade Waste Commission, the entity that regulates commercial waste disposal in New York City, "obtained" the agreement of Paolino, Waste Management Inc., and the City of Philadelphia to "contribute" financially towards removal of the ash in Haiti-the price for doing further business in New York City.

The Haiti government-which had replaced the military regime several years ago-oversaw the efforts, and-strange twist of fate, here-also agreed to finance part of the removal. A team of workers in Gonalves worked long hours under the hot sun for five months to make sure that the material was correctly treated and that all of it left Haiti. The USDA monitored the treatment. It was completed in late March 2000.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture developed and supervised the protocol for treating the ash, and certified that it was safe for disposal in a landfill in the U.S. The NY Trade Waste Commission managed the U.S. financial contribution and the negotiations for a disposal site. (The dollar amounts contributed by the different U.S. agencies have not yet been reported.)

Finally, on April 5, 2000, the ash departed Gonalves. It was eventually unloaded in the U.S. 17 days later and is being temporarily stored, awaiting transfer to a permanent storage place at a Waste Management site. Twelve years after its journey began, the waste has been "repatriated."

On the Home Front

While the trade in toxic wastes is making the situation dreadful abroad, it is little better at home. U.S. domestic waterways are dangerously polluted by industrial wastes. The Environmental Protection Agency says that 40 percent of the nation's waterways are too polluted for swimming or fishing. Mercury is one of the many toxins present in industrial waste shipped abroad for burning or burial that is now returning to pollute our domestic waters. It is a lethal poison with brutal effects on the nervous system, even in very low concentrations. Mercury poisoning causes deafness, loss of smell and taste, ulcers, mental deterioration, kidney damage, and death. In 1994, the state of New Jersey issued a public health notice warning residents not to eat bass, pickerel, or yellow bullhead catfish in 15 locations in the state, due to mercury contamination.

New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, like her counterparts in New York and elsewhere, has repeatedly minimized the reports of high levels of mercury and other toxins in the state's waterways. In fact, it was only public outrage at the New Jersey Department of Energy Protection's attempt to raise the standard for clean-up of chromium from 75 parts per million to a whopping 56,000 ppm-which would have redefined all 150 chromium contaminated sites in Jersey City as "clean," with nary a change-that forced the Whitman administration to back down on that particular issue.

Out of 56 lakes, reservoirs, and streams tested in New Jersey 32 of them contain elevated levels of mercury in fish. The amounts discovered were between 1 part per million and 8.9 ppm-higher than any levels ever recorded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and extremely dangerous for human consumption.

New Jersey has the second highest incidence of breast cancer and the highest death rate from all cancers of any state in the country. Governor Whitman's response was to eliminate 250 jobs in the Department of Environmental Protection.

A similar study by the New York Department of Health (in 1994) found a 62 percent increase in breast cancer cases among women who lived within half-a-mile of chemical, petroleum, and rubber product plants.

Corporations headquartered in New Jersey and elsewhere have long taken their cue from Governor Whitman and her predecessors' acceptance of high levels of mercury and other contaminants in the state's waterways. Borden Chemicals and Plastics, Calgon Carbon Inc., and American Cyanamid-headquartered in New Jersey, the latter being the parent company of Old Spice, Pierre Cardin, and Breck shampoo-are huge producers of mercury waste. While laws do exist to limit dumping of hazardous waste in the U.S.-unenforced though they may be-it's another matter in many other countries desperate for development in any form. So these companies shipped 10,000 barrels of mercury waste to American Cyanamid's Thor "recycling" facility in South Africa in the mid-1980s. The U.S. government looked the other way as American Cyanamid dumped more than 120,000 pounds of mercury and other toxic wastes produced in New Jersey into South Africa's rivers, drastically compromising drinking water and agriculture and killing hundreds of people downstream.

Industrial Production and Toxic Wastes

The same intersection of environmental destruction, imposed poverty, counterinsurgency warfare, political corruption and brutality, and the dumping of toxic wastes from abroad ravages poor countries throughout the world. Implicated are not only Republicans but their Democratic colleagues as well. In Bangladesh in 1998, for example, an explosion occurred at a drilling site of the American oil company, Occidental Petroleum. Occidental-in which Vice President Al Gore owns a good deal of stock-has been operating in Colombia as well, and protesters have provided the vice president with a good deal of flak for Occidental's destruction of the

U'wa people there. At the Bangladesh explosion, 20 square miles of the area were burned to ashes, melted, and total communication disappeared. Tree gardens were burned to ashes. Hundreds of people died, including workers at Occidental. Twenty percent of Bangladesh was cut off for six months from the rest of the country due to that explosion, and gas continued to leak into the environment unchecked.

Industrial and agricultural accidents occur routinely, although few with the horrific intensity of Union Carbide's release of an enormous cloud of toxic gasses from its Bhopal India plant in 1984, which killed 10,000 people within a few hours. (Union Carbide also holds the dubious record for industrial disasters on U.S. soil, poisoning to death 2,000 workers with silicosis during the building of the Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the 1930s.) More than 10,000 workers are killed outright each year in the U.S. by on-the-job accidents, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of workers crippled or imparted with black or brown lung, emphysema, and other life-threatening ailments. That's not even counting long-term cancers and immune diseases brought about by living in a ravaged environment.

What of the industrial process itself? Can there be extraction, say, of oil without the poisoning of an entire region (and the political clampdown that necessarily comes along with it), as experienced by the Ogoni of Nigeria, the Mayan of Chiapas, or the Navajo/Dineh and Hopi of Big Mountain, Arizona?

And what of the products produced? All products at some point become wastes. How are they to be disposed of?

Many products-contaminating herbicides, pesticides, and "fertilizer" shipped abroad for agribusiness plantations, for example-are manufactured in the U. S. but banned for sale here due to strong working class health and safety movements. They are poisonous to the environment as well as to human health. Take Butachlor, an herbicide manufactured by Monsanto (trade names: Machete, Lambast), which poses both acute and chronic health risks and can contaminate water supplies. Although manufactured in Muscatine, Iowa (where the factory releases 265,000 pounds of dangerous chemicals per year directly into the Mississippi River), its manufacturer, Monsanto, never gained a food residue tolerance for butachlor. The company was refused a permit for distribution of the toxic herbicide in the U. S. due to "environmental, residue, fish and wildlife, and toxicological concerns," according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Monsanto, however, is allowed under U.S. Iaw to continue to manufacture the herbicide here so long as it doesn't sell it within the country's borders. So Monsanto sells it overseas where dozens of countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa apply butachlor primarily on rice paddies.

Today, almost all U.S. rice imports have been treated overseas with butachlor. The substance banned in the U.S. ends up not only poisoning the poor in other countries but those who eat rice here in the U.S. as well.

Another example, among thousands: Tampons manufactured in the U.S. but banned for sale here for causing toxic shock syndrome, a deadly disease. While pulling the product from the domestic market, U.S. companies sold these same tampons by the millions in Africa, and Central and South America throughout the 1 980s, even after the deadly risks were identified.

None of these are isolated instances that can be looked upon as errors in judgement, mistakes in policy, or even "unfortunate excrescences" of the capitalist production process. Barron's, Wall Street's financial magazine, succinctly summarized: "In the generation of nuclear energy, manmade hazards seem unavoidable, but bankruptcy strikes us as a needless risk."

Take a look at the recent outbreak of aresenic contamination in England and in Bangladesh. For the last two years, Bangladesh and four other countries, in the name of aid, have been receiving American electrical poles-poles treated with 2.5 pounds of arsenic each.

Arsenic, if fixed in one place, one pole can contaminate 2.3 square miles. The need of OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 29 wealthy, industrialized powers such as Europe, Japan, Russia, the U.S., and Canada) to find new locations to dump the wastes of industrial production is one of the neglected forces driving the structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank.

Agencies such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and U.S. Agency for International Development, which purport to assist nations in overcoming their debt burdens and helping them save the environment, in actuality help to maintain countries in perpetual debt at the expense of the environment. IMF/World Bank "investments," combined with their neoliberal austerity programs and privatization (known as "structural adjustment"), constitute a major facet of the New World Order, ultimately destroying non-capitalist cooperative societies which have existed in some areas for millennia, and forcing the privatization of publicly-owned sectors of capitalist ones. These agencies relegate ever-new areas of the world for waste disposal, extraction of natural resources, and cement shopping-mall markets.


Mitchel Cohen organizes with the Brooklyn Greens/ Green Party °f NY State, the Red Balloon Collective, and the Direct Action Network to Free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier.

Environment watch

Index of Website

Home Page