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Latin America: Dumping Ground for Toxic Wastes

December 11, 1990 GMT

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) _ U.S. and European companies dump millions of tons of toxic waste in Latin America every year, leaving poisonous residues that health officials say will endanger lives for decades.

Everything from household trash to radioactive sludge is sent to the region because lax anti-pollution laws make disposal easier and cheaper.

Waste exporters say they are doing nothing wrong, but environmentalists claim Latin Americans are not being told the full story behind the toxic garbage they receive.

Scientists in Brazil say the toxic waste, dumped haphazardly in rivers, marshlands or earth wells since the late 1960s, causes cancers, birth defects, nerve damage and blood disorders.

″This is an illicit trade, shrouded in secrecy and often done by small unregistered companies, that is devastating the environment and will affect generations to come,″ said Dr. Anthony Wong, president of the Brazilian Society of Toxicology and director of the Sao Paulo Poison Control Center.

No precise figures are available for Latin America, but Mostafa Tolla, director of the U.N. Environmental Program, estimates that 40 million tons of toxic waste entered the Third World in 1989.

The United States, which generates 275 million tons of hazardous garbage a year, is the world’s leading waste exporter.

American companies wanting to export hazardous waste must tell the Environmental Protection Agency.

Such notifications rose from 12 in 1980 to 626 in 1989. A growing share of the waste went to Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and the Caribbean, according to EPA documents.

″Latin America is a perfect dumping ground,″ said Rubens Born, director in Brazil for Greenpeace, the international environmental group. ″There’s lots of space, loads of corrupt inspectors and widespread ignorance of the problem.″

Waste exporters say wastes are tightly monitored by the EPA and shipments could not leave the United States if they contained dangerous levels of toxins. They also say the disposal methods they practice in foreign countries are comparable to those in the United States.

Latin health officials argue that poorly paid, ill-equipped port inspectors are easily bribed to sigrn consent forms for importing hazardous waste or to look the other way when cargoes are disposed of illegally.

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U.S. law says foreign countries must be notified about waste shipments, but many Latin governments complain about the quality of the information.

″The information we receive from the U.S. EPA is grossly misleading,″ said Dr. Waldemar F. Almeida, head of Brazil’s National Institute of Health Quality Control. ″We are rarely informed of the quantity, the type of waste or its destination.″

Wendy Grieder, director of the EPA’s international office in Washington, responded in a telephone interview:

″Waste is shipped with the understanding of all countries involved. Latin countries are told through our embassies what kind of waste they are getting, how much and the point of exit and entry.″

A 1988 report by the EPA inspector general said, however, that the agency did not know how much waste was shipped abroad or which exporters failed to comply with requirements for notification of intent.

Foreign firms often approach debt-ridden Latin governments with offers of public works projects or increased investment in return for permission to dump waste.

In 1988, a New York company offered to build schools, hospitals and roads in San Clemente, Peru, in return for the right to dispose of incinerator ash near the city. After public protests, Peruvian officials rejected the offer.

On July 7, 1989, the Summit Cement and Development Corp. asked the Bahamas government for permission to blend 88,000 tons a year of hazardous solvents with prime fuels to fire cement kilns on Grand Bahama Island, according to company documents.

In return, Summit promised to create 180 jobs and give $4.5 million to the Caribbean island. The government turned the offer down.

″Hazardous wastes would have been unloaded and burned 50 yards from where cruise ships dock in the harbor,″ said Edward St. George, chairman of the Bahamas Port Authority. ″For a few jobs, we would have polluted the island and severely damaged our reputation with tourists.″

The Associated Press telephoned several times to the office of the company owner, Finn Moller, in Alhambra, Calif. His secretary said he would have no comment.

Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and Bolivia have received offers from U.S. and European companies to build incinerators and dump sites for foreign waste, government officials of those countries told the AP. All offers were refused.

Jim Vallette, a Greenpeace coordinator in Washington, D.C., said: ″These governments have so far resisted pressure to enter potentially lucrative dumping contracts because nationalists will accuse them of pandering to Uncle Sam’s interests.″

Environmentalists say the cash offers are tempting for Latin American governments, which have a combined foreign debt of more than $400 billion.

″We are being forced to choose between poverty and poison,″ said Juan Shroder, founder of the environmental group Earth Alert in Buenos Aires.

Some waste is intended for use in development projects.

In January, International Energy Resources Inc. of Greenwich, Conn., offered to underwrite the cost of resurfacing 400 miles of roads in Guatemala with 5.5 million tons of ash from U.S. municipal incinerators.

The government backed out after Greenpeace told Guatemalan authorities the ash contained dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

Douglas Berardo, president of the company, said the chemicals did not pose a health or ecological threat because the ash had been ″washed,″ and what toxicity remained would be immobilized when the ash was mixed with concrete.

″Everything was done according to the EPA’s specifications,″ he said by telephone from Greenwich. ″This ash is clean.″

He said Venezuela, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and San Andres Island in Colombia had refused similar deals.

Several European and U.S. scrap suppliers have mixed toxic sludge with ordinary metals meant to be recycled by Latin American industries.

Last year, Greenpeace complained about a shipment of 430 metric tons of toxic zinc residues from Belgium, Italy and Denmark to Brazil’s Produquimica Co., said Eduardo San Martin, pollution control director of Sao Paulo state.

Brazilian environmental officials found the residue to contain dangerously high levels of lead, mercury, cadmium and PCBs that Produquimica was unequipped to handle and the waste was sent back, San Martin said. Greenpeace blocked a second shipment of 1,000 tons of tainted zinc residue.

To sidestep controls, some foreign-owned multinationals ship wastes to subsidiaries in Latin countries.

In 1978, dioxanes and benzene produced by foreign multinationals abroad were buried in earth wells in the Samarita district of Cubatao in southern Brazil, said Wong, director of the Sao Paulo center.

Housing was built on the well sites several years later and dozens of residents suffered blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia and leukemia, because of the toxins, said a report by Sao Paulo state health officials.

In 1989, Mexican health officials in Ciudad Juarez said scores of children sniffed glowing toxic waste dumped by a ″maquiladora,″ one of more than 1,000 U.S.-owned assembly plants on the Mexican side of the border. They said the waste could cause infertility, genetic damage and organ and brain lesions.

A study of seven border cities by the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Mexican think tank, said maquiladoras were contaminating the water table and contributing to cancer, congenital defects and nervous system damage.

Chile, Argentina and Paraguay are drafting laws to prohibit waste imports. Brazil restricted imports of scrap metal imports on Aug. 1.