Albion Monitor /News

U.S. Toxic Waste in Haiti May be Returned to Sender

by Danielle Knight

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(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Some 4,000 tons of toxic waste, dumped on a beach in Haiti 10 years ago finally may be cleaned up and returned to the United States, say environmental groups.

The cargo ship, Khian Sea, dumped its cargo of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia on a beach adjacent to Sedren dock in the Haitian port city of Gonaives. Now York City's Waste Commission has initiated a project to return the waste and clean the area but Philadelphia city officials have refused to participate arguing that they are under no legal obligation.

Philadelphia, which ironically derives from the Greek words for "brotherly love," does have a moral obligation to clean up the site, insist environmental organizations here and in Haiti.

"New York City has been decent enough to try to resolve this scandal," said Kenny Bruno, a campaigner with the international environmental group Greenpeace. "Philadelphia, unfortunately has only shown total disregard for the Haitian people for the past 10 years by refusing to take responsibility for its own toxic waste."

Worst case of U.S. waste dumping besides Mexico
The dumping in 1988 was the first known case of off-loading U.S. waste in the Third World, outside Mexico, says Bruno. "While Haiti has experienced the most severe forms of repression and political turmoil, the people have never given up on returning this waste to its sender."

Spurred by environmental contamination and reports of adverse health effects resulting from the toxic waste, Greenpeace, the Boston-based Haiti Communications Project, the Haiti Collective for the Protection of the Environment and Alternative Development (COHPEDA) and other Haitian based groups have been calling for the return of the toxic ash for the past decade.

Now, according to these organizations, there is "light at the end of the tunnel." The New York City Waste Commission negotiated an agreement last June with the New Jersey-based Eastern Environmental Services (EES) -- a waste transportation company whose director was part of the corporation that originally contracted the Khian Sea to dispose of Philadelphia's ash.

In order to receive a license, through the Commission, to haul New York City's trash, EES must provide landfill space for the toxic ash, plus $100,000 toward excavating and shipping the ash to the United States. EES's director, Louis Paolino, was an owner of Joseph Paolino and Sons -- one of the companies responsible for the export of the materials to Haiti. The other two companies responsible for shipping the waste to Haiti were the Amalgamated Shipping and Coastal Carrier.

Local officials supposedly allowed the dumping because they thought it would be used as fertilizer
When asked what motivated the New York City Commission to become involved in Philadelphia's waste controversy, Chad Vignola, the deputy commissioner, declared: "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. The issue with EES falls under these same conditions."

"The Commission deserves a lot of credit for trying to do the right thing," said Bruno.

Yet, even though Vignola says EES must follow through with the agreement in order to retain their trash hauling license, environmentalists are worried.

Bruno cautions that the agreement for the return of Philadelphia's ash expires at the end of May, 1998. He also says that this recent negotiation only provides for about half of the necessary funds to effectively clean up the dump site and ship the waste back to the United States.

Greenpeace and the Haiti Communications Project (HCI) have been pressuring Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, as well as the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide cooperation and financial assistance to complete the project before the window of opportunity closes.

It has been an uphill battle, however, as State department officials say they cannot become involved because no laws were broken when the waste was dumped. Philadelphia officials continue to show no sign that they will provide support.

"We have organized letter writing campaigns to various officials to get the waste sent back to the United States and even sent some 250 small envelopes of the ash to Philadelphia's mayor and the EPA," Ehrl Lafontant, president of HCI, a Haitian rights organization told IPS. "But it seems like we may have to legally protest this case of environmental racism and injustice by the United States in order to get the waste shipped back."

The Khian Sea spent two years traveling the world in search of a site for its toxic cargo before dumping the waste in Haiti. Local officials in Gonaives supposedly allowed the dumping because they thought that the waste would be used as fertilizer.

The two owners of Coastal Carrier, the company that owned the ship, were charged with perjury and ocean dumping by U.S. federal prosecutors in 1993, but were only convicted of perjury. No criminal charges have ever been brought against the Khian Sea's captain nor the city of Philadelphia.

Despite orders by the Haitian government to reload the ash and leave, the Khian Sea left without reloading the ash. Days later, the Haitian Prime Minister banned all waste imports into Haiti.

Some of the ash dumped there still sits on the beach near the Sedren wharf in the port of Gonaives. A larger portion of the ash was moved to an unlined, uncovered concrete bunker 4 kilometers away, says Bruno. Toxic substances, including lead, cadmium, and carcinogenic dioxins and benzene, within the ash have contaminated the soil.

People and cattle living near a site built to accommodate the toxic waste, in the town of Lapierre, have since died, according to COHPEDA, a Haitian environmental group. Pointing to the waste site as the probable cause of the deaths, the ecology group says there had been no medical follow-up in the area, nor autopsies on the animals to pinpoint the exact cause of their death.

Haitian environmental officials told IPS that several workers who were hired in 1988 to transport the toxic materials from the dock to its final resting site in Lapierre had since died. The workers, who had no masks, gloves or boots, reportedly suffered from skin lesions and vision problems.

Officials have also indicated that some of the toxic substances at the site may have leaked through the protective layers of the landfill.

The Khian Sea controversy and other similar reports of exporting waste from industrialized countries to developing countries have led negotiations for an international treaty, called the Basel Convention, which would ban this type of waste export to developing countries. The United States, which has dumped hazardous wastes in South Africa, Bangladesh, and India that still remain, has not yet ratified the treaty.

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Albion Monitor February 11, 1998 (

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