WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is considering walking away from enhanced
commitments to halt the dumping of hazardous waste in developing countries, causing
alarm among environmentalists.
At issue is a 1995 amendment to the Basel Convention on international shipments of
A spokesperson for the State Department says that although a decision has not been
made, the US administration is considering ratifying only the 1989 convention and not the
1995 amendment, known informally as the 'Basel Ban'. Unlike the treaty, the amendment
forbids rich countries from dumping toxic industrial and other waste in poor countries.
U.S.-based groups, however, say that officials told them last month Washington would not
sign on to the amendment. This has them worried, because the 1989 Convention sets out to
regulate shipments and therefore, in their view, legitimizes dumping.
''Rather than trying to move in the right direction, the United States is simply trying to move
into a treaty in order to move it in the wrong direction,'' they say in a letter delivered last
week to the State Department. The groups include the Center for International
Environmental Law, Greenpeace, Earthrights International, and Sierra Club.
Unlike similar environmental protection treaties, the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of
Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal did not outlaw toxic
shipments from industrialized countries to developing nations.
When 82 countries added the ban by consensus in 1995, environmentalists claimed this
was the beginning of the end of the dumping, which had been shown to endanger the health
and environment of people in a number of African, Asian and Latin American countries.
In their letter, the groups say the Basel Ban is one of the ''best opportunities'' to not only
halt the toxic flow to the developing world, but also to reduce the toxicity of waste generated
in the rich countries themselves. Once the relatively cheap option of dumping is removed,
they argue, firms in the industrialized world will have an incentive to clean up the waste in
the first place.
The 15-member European Union (EU) has ratified the amendment, as have 16 other
countries. These include China, Ecuador, Norway, Panama, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad.
The United States has never supported the ban and has sought to have it rejected or
weakened, critics say. Although Al Gore, then US vice president, said in 1994 that
Washington would seek an international ban on toxic waste exports, pressure from industry
has proven more influential in shaping the US position.
''The United States position on this important moral and environmental question has been
dictated by a very small sector of the business community,'' says Jim Puckett, coordinator
of the Basel Action Network.
Corporate groups opposed to the ban include the US Chamber of Commerce and the
Business Recycling Coalition.
Their case against the ban was laid out in 1998, in a report commissioned by the
business-backed International Council on Metals and Environment and prepared by the
Center for Trade Policy and Law, both based in Canada.
These detractors assert that the ban violates international trade rules, denying waste
importing countries the right to determine their own policies, particularly in cases where the
importing country has the capacity to manage the waste in an environmentally sound
''These countries should be authorized to have access to resources needed to further
develop their recycling abilities and their economies,'' says the 1998 report.
Environmental groups, however, say the trade in waste has had disastrous consequences.
In 1988, for example, a cargo ship dumped 4,000 tons of hazardous incinerator ash from the
US city of Philadelphia onto a beach outside the Haitian port city of Gonaive.
After having been turned away at ports around the world, the waste that no country wanted
ended up in one of the poorest nations in the world, one ill-equipped to handle the ash.
The ash, which contained toxic heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, contaminated the
soil in Gonaive, according to the Haitian environmental group COHPEDA. Some of the ash
was later taken to the town of Lapierre, where cattle subsequently died.
Several workers hired to transport the toxic materials from the dock also have since died.
They had not been provided protective masks, gloves or boots. Many reportedly suffered
skin lesions and eyesight problems.
After much pressure from COHPEDA and US environmentalists, the waste was shipped
back to the United States last year. As of April, it was still sitting on a barge off the coast of