Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

ENVIRONMENT-HAITI: U.S. Toxic Waste to be Returned to Sender

Danielle Knight

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 1998 (IPS) - Back in 1988 a cargo vessel dumped 4,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash from the U.S. city of Philadelphia onto a beach outside the Haitian port city of Gonaive. This month, after a long fight by environmental groups here and in Haiti, the waste finally will be cleaned up and returned to the United States.

“This is a day of accomplishment and hope for the people of Haiti, who have never given up the effort to clean up this waste,” said Kenny Bruno, a toxics campaigner with the environmental group Greenpeace.

The Haiti dumping was the first known case outside of Mexico of U.S. waste being off-loaded in a third world country and caused an immediate outcry among environmentalists. Until recently, the city of Philadelphia refused to take responsibility for its waste and it seemed as if the toxic ash would remain in Haiti forever, Bruno said.

“Fortunately,” he says, “there are individuals and agencies with a more developed sense of right and wrong and they have come to the rescue.”

The costs of the clean-up will be met mainly by Eastern Environmental Services, the New Jersey-based trash hauling company whose director was part of a corporation that originally contracted the freighter Khian Sea to dispose of Philadelphia’s ash. It will cost the company 225,000 dollars.

Environmental groups and Haitian advocacy organisations, however, are outraged that Philadelphia will contribute only 50,000 dollars toward the project, leaving a balance of anywhere between 75,000 dollars and 150,000 dollars to be paid by the Haitian government.

“It is disgraceful that Philadelphia doesn’t feel morally obligated to pay for the rest of the clean-up costs and will make the poorest country in the hemisphere pay for something for which it was not responsible,” Bruno said.

Philadelphia can afford to pay more, he added, since it reportedly enjoyed a current budget surplus. Bruno also pointed out that the city saved 630,000 in disposal fees for the ash on board the Khian Sea because Philadelphia withheld payment.

City officials still insisted that Philadelphia had no responsibility for the ash sent to Haiti.

“Philadelphia has no obligation whatsoever to clean up the ash,” says Kevin Feeley, spokesman for the mayor. “Eastern did not fulfill its obligations to dispose of this safely and we withheld their payment and pressed for an investigation. In an effort to resolve this situation we agreed to pay no more than the requested 50,000 dollars”

Only due to pressure from Greenpeace, the Boston-based Haiti Communications Project, the Haiti Collective for the Protection of the Environmentand Alternative Development and other Haitian based groups did Philadelphia agree to pay even this amount, said bruno.

“Our protests and letter-writing campaigns brought attention to the environmental contaminations and reports of adverse health effects in Haiti resulting from the dumping of Philadelphia’s toxic waste,” he said.

Efforts to hold Eastern accountable were re-ignited last year when the New York City Waste Commission said the waste-hauling company could only receive a license in the lucrative New York trash market if it helped clean up the ash in Haiti.

Eastern’s director, Louis Paolino, was an owner of Joseph Paolino and Sons – one of the companies responsible for the export of the waste to Haiti. Amalgamated Shipping and Coastal Carrier were two other companies involved for shipping the waste.

“If a company applying for a license hasn’t paid their taxes or has committed some environmental violation – we will not grant it a license until these matters are taken care of,” Chad Vignola, the deputy commissioner told IPS. “The issue with Eastern falls under these same conditions.”

The Khian Sea spent two years wandering the world’s seaways in search of a site for its lethal cargo before dumping the waste in Haiti. Local officials in Gonaives allowed the ash to be off- loaded sujpposedly because they thought that the waste would be used as fertilizer.

Despite orders by the Haitian government to reload its cargo, the Khian Sea sailed without reloading the ash. Days later, the Haitian government banned all waste imports into Haiti.

The ash, containing toxic heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, reportedly contaminated the soil in the Gonaives area. Haiti. Clean-up workers contracted through the New York-based Caribbean Dredging company this week began clean-up operations on the ash that was moved to an unlined, uncovered concrete bunker four kilometers from the beach.

The waste is scheduled to leave Gonaives for the United States in mid-November. While it is unclear where the waste will be stored on arrival, Bruno expects it to be put somewhere in a government approved landfill on the east coast.

Haitian groups are also pressing for compensation for local residents who have reportedly suffered health effects from the contamination.

Cattle had died in the town of Lapierre, near the eventual site of the toxic waste, according to COHPEDA, a Haitian environmental group. The activists said there had been no medical follow-up in the area, nor any autopsies on the animals to clarify the exact cause of death.

Several workers hired 10 years ago to transport the toxic materials from the dock to its resting site in Lapierre also had since died. The workers, who had no masks, gloves or boots, reportedly suffered from skin lesions and vision problems.

While the two owners of Coastal Carrier, the company that owned the ship, were convicted of perjury by federal prosecutors in 1993, no criminal charges were ever brought against the master of the Khian Sea’s or the city of Philadelphia.

U.S. State department officials said they could not become involved because no laws were broken when the waste was dumped.

Such absence of dumping regulations inspired countries to negotiate an international treaty called the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste that would legally ban waste exports from industrialised countries to developing countries.

The United States – which since the incident in Haiti has dumped hazardous waste in South Africa, Bangladesh, and India – has yet to ratify the treaty.

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