Albion Monitor /News

U.S. Moves Against CFC Smugglers

by Jim Lobe

Smuggling thousands of tons of ozone-destroying chemicals into the United States
(IPS) WASHINGTON-- The administration of President Bill Clinton has indicted more than a dozen individuals and companies in four southern states for smuggling thousands of tons of ozone-destroying chemicals into the United States, mainly across the Mexican border.

The smuggling of illegal chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), whose emission causes the life-protecting stratospheric ozone layer to break down, is carried out increasingly along the same routes used by drug traffickers, said Customs Service Commissioner George Weise at a press conference January 9.

That represents a shift in smuggling patterns since 1995, when the government carried out a sting operation against smuggling rings which were based at the Port of Miami. Operation "Cool Breeze," which involved four U.S. agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), resulted in criminal convictions of more than a dozen smugglers and millions of dollars in fines.

Legal production -- often by multinational corporations based in the industrialized world -- is still permitted and is now fueling a highly profitable black market in CFC trade
In announcing the indictments, Weise cited indications of "major smuggling operations in Texas and California, some of which involve Russian organized crime and are transcontinental in scope."

Officials credited a November report by Ozone Action, a non- governmental organization here, with helping to track the shift to Mexico.

In that report, Ozone Action noted that the amount of CFCs coming from Mexico into the United States had reached "alarming rates." It also found that a canister of CFCs bought legally in Mexico for $42 would sell for $550 dollars in the United States -- a profit margin that generally exceeded that realized by most drug-trafficking.

"It's great that the U.S. government is going after the black market in CFCs," said Jim Vallette, the report's main author. "But it would be even better if the government were to pursue the source -- the string of CFC factories which continue to produce worldwide," he told IPS.

CFCs have been banned from import or production for domestic use in the United States and other industrialized nations since Jan. 1996 under amendments to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a global agreement which sets a timetable for the eventual global phase-out of CFCs and similar ozone-destroying chemicals by the year 2010.

During the 1980s, scientists concluded that CFCs, halons, and other chlorine-based chemicals, which are used primarily as refrigerants and solvents for computers and other hi-tech equipment, were wafting up into the stratosphere, breaking down the layer of ozone which protect's the Earth's surface from the sun's cancer-causing ultra-violet (UV) radiation.

The result of that process has been the seasonal appearance of what is referred to as an "ozone hole" over both of the Earth's poles and the higher latitudes in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Those holes have grown progressively bigger since they were first detected, exposing large population centers in North America, northern Europe, South America's southern cone, and the Antipodes to significantly higher-than-normal amounts of UV radiation.

The Montreal Protocol banned the production of CFCs for most uses in industrialized countries as of Jan. 1996, but permits developing countries to continue producing them before a final phase-out in 2010. Industrialized countries are still permitted to produce or import up to 15 percent of their current annual levels for "essential use," and, after 2010, the same exception will apply to developing nations.

Although most scientists believe that the ozone layer will begin to recover at some point in the next few years, ozone over the northern hemisphere fell to its lowest ever level last winter, and indications from the southern hemisphere suggest 1996 could be as bad as 1993, the worst year on record.

The fact that legal production -- often by multinational corporations based in the industrialized world -- is still permitted and is now fueling a highly profitable black market in CFC trade should spur policymakers to ban all production now, according to Ozone Action. Vallette says there are sufficient stockpiles of CFC-12 -- the most popular CFC because of its use in car air-conditioning systems here -- to cover any foreseeable need.

In announcing the indictments, the Justice Department here said existing stockpiles are sold to certified distributors and are used primarily to refill systems in the approximately 80 million cars made before 1994 that are still in use. Once the supply of these CFCs are used up, according to the Department, safer refrigerants are available, although some modifications will have to be made to systems which need them.

The new charges resulted from an inter-agency program called the National CFC Enforcement Initiative, according to Attorney- General Janet Reno. "To CFC smugglers," she said today, "we say: we will find you; we will shut down this black market; and we will not let you endanger our ecosystem and our children for a few dollars."

The indictments were returned in four states: California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

The officials declined to comment specifically on charges by Ozone Action that almost all of the canisters moving across the Mexican border were from a company called Quimobasicos just across the border in Monterrey.

A joint enterprise of Allied Signal, a U.S. company which is one of the world's biggest CFC producers, and Mexico's Cydsa, Quimobasicos is located so close to the U.S. border that it has become an irresistible source for smuggling, according to Ozone Action.

As a developing country, Mexico is not required to phase out CFC production until 2010, although its government has said it will ban domestic consumption in the year 2000. About Allied Signal, one official said today, Washington "is also pursuing diplomatic answers to deal with these issues."

Allied Signal is one of the word's top three private CFC producers. Du Pont, France's Elf-Atochem, and Allied Signal have together held almost 40 percent of the global market through its plants in Brazil, Mexico, the Netherlands, India, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela.

Plants in China also account for about 40 percent of global production. Companies in Russia and India produce the balance, according to Ozone Action.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 29, 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page