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Fourteen years ago, the soon-to-be infamous barge, the Khian Sea, left the territorial waters of the United States and began circling the oceans in search of a country willing to accept its cargo: 14,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash.
First it went to the Bahamas, then to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau and the Netherlands Antilles. Wherever it went, people gathered to protest its arrival. No one wanted the millions of pounds of Philadelphia municipal incinerator ash dumped in their country.
Desperate to unload, the ship’s crew lied about their cargo hoping to catch a government unawares. Sometimes they identified the ash as “construction material”; other times they said it was “road fill”; often they said it was “muddy waste.” But environmental experts were generally one step ahead in notifying the recipients; no one would take it. That is, until it got to Haiti. There, U.S.-backed dictator Baby Doc Duvalier issued a permit for the “fertilizer,” and four thousand tons of the ash was dumped onto the beach in the town of Gonaives.
It didn’t take long for public outcry to force Haitian officials to suddenly “realize” they weren’t getting fertilizer. They canceled the import permit and ordered the waste returned to the ship. But the Khian Sea had already slipped away in the night leaving thousands of tons toxic ash on the beach. (1)
For two years more the Khian Sea chugged from country to country trying to dispose of the remaining 10,000 tons of Philadelphia ash. The crew was even ordered to paint over the barge’s name — not once, but twice. Still, no one was fooled into taking its toxic cargo. A crew member later testified that the waste was finally dumped into the Indian Ocean.
The activist environmental group, Greenpeace, pressured the U.S. government to test the “fertilizer” abandoned in Haiti. After much wrangling, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally did so. The EPA and Greenpeace found it contained 1,800 pounds of arsenic, 4,300 pounds of cadmium, and 435,000 pounds of lead, dioxin and other toxins. But no one would clean it up.
The cost of the cleanup at Gonaives had been estimated to be around $300,000. Philadelphia had a $130 million budget surplus at that time, which would have been more than enough to cover the costs. But Philadelphia lawyer Ed Rendell — then mayor of that city and now Chairman of the Democratic National Committee — refused to put up the funds.(2) Joseph Paolino, whose company (Joseph Paolino and Sons) had contracted to transport the waste ash with Amalgamated Shipping, the Khian Sea’s owner, refused as well.
In July of 1992, the U.S. Justice Department — under pressure from environmental groups throughout the world — finally filed indictments against the two waste traders who had shipped and dumped the 14,000 tons of Philadelphia incinerator ash. Similar indictments were brought against three individuals and four corporations who illegally exported 3,000 tons of hazardous waste to Bangladesh and Australia, also labeled as “fertilizer.” Strangely, none of the waste traders were charged with dumping their toxic cargo at sea, nor even with falsely labeling it as fertilizer and abandoning it on the beaches of Haiti, Bangladesh, and Australia. They were charged only with lying to a grand jury.
1. Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly #595, April 23, 1998. For background information on the Khian Sea waste barge, please see the section entitled Project Return to Sender at www.essentialaction.org.
MITCHEL COHEN is the editor of Green Politix, the national newspaper of The Greens/Green Party USA.
He can be reached at: email@example.com