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Haiti and Toxic Waste

Two decades ago, the garbage barge, the Khian Sea, with no place in the U.S. willing to accept its garbage, 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,” and still others “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 garbage, which was by now being called “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 Haiti’s 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 slipped away in the night, leaving thousands of tons toxic ash on the beach.

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 even painted 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.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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’s $130 million budget surplus would more than cover it, but Philadelphia lawyer Ed Rendell — then mayor of that city and later Chairman of the Democratic National Committee — refused to put up the funds. Joseph Paolino, whose company (Joseph Paolino and Sons) had contracted to transport the waste ash aboard the infamous Khian Sea garbage barge owned by Amalgamated Shipping, refused as well.

In July of 1992, the U.S. Justice Department — under pressure from environmental groups throughout the world — finally filed indictments against 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.” But 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. (“Indictments Announced in Philadelphia’s Haiti Ash Scandal; Greenpeace Calls for Immediate Cleanup,” Greenpeace News, July 14, 1992, and “Philadelphia and U.S. EPA Get Unexpected Ash Packets,” Greenpeace Waste Trade Update, March 22, 1991.)

A month earlier, similar watered-down indictments were announced against three individuals and four corporations who illegally exported 3,000 tons of hazardous waste to Bangladesh and Australia, also labelled as “fertilizer.” Meanwhile, the government stonewalled, for years; it took more than a decade for the U.S. government to clean up the waste.

U.S. law was interpreted to protect the dumpers, not the dumped on. Unwilling recipients of toxic wastes are offered no recourse. In recent years, much of the waste from industrialized countries is exported openly, under the name of “recycled material.” These are touted as “fuel” for incinerators generating energy in poor countries. “Once a waste is designated as ‘recyclable’ it is exempt from U.S. toxic waste law and can be bought and sold as if it were ice cream. Slags, sludges, and even dusts captured on pollution control filters are being bagged up and shipped abroad,” writes Peter Montague in Rachel’s Weekly. “These wastes may contain significant quantities of valuable metals, such as zinc, but they also can and do contain significant quantities of toxic by-products such as cadmium, lead and dioxins. The ‘recycling’ loophole in U.S. toxic waste law is big enough to float a barge through, and many barges are floating through it uncounted.”

Every year, thousands of tons of “recycled” waste from the U.S., deceptively labeled as “fertilizer,” are plowed into farms, beaches and deserts in Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Brazil and dozens of other countries. The Clinton administration followed former President George Bush’s lead in allowing U.S. corporations to mix incinerator ash and other wastes containing high concentrations of lead, cadmium and mercury with agricultural chemicals and are sold to (or dumped in) unsuspecting or uncaring agencies and governments throughout the world. (Greenpeace Toxic Trade Campaign, “United States Blocks Efforts to Prohibit Global Waste Dumping by Industrial States,” December 2, 1992.)

These dangerous chemicals are considered “inert,” since they play no active role as “fertilizer” — although they are very active in causing cancers and other diseases. Under U.S. law, ingredients designated as “inert” are not required to be labeled nor reported to the buyer.

President Clinton — expanding the policies of his ignominious predecessors — continued to obstruct the rest of the world from regulating the disastrous international trade in hazardous wastes. At a critical March 21-25 1994 international conference in Geneva, the United States stood with only a handful of waste-producing countries against the entire world in opposing a resolution banning the shipment of hazardous wastes to non-industrialized countries.

Shadowy covert operations figures spent the next two decades promoting schemes involving the shipment to Haiti of U.S. toxic wastes.

In November 1993, Time Magazine reported that a former U.S. government operative had detailed “an elaborate plan to tap U.S. aid funds for low-interest loans that would be used to transport New York City garbage to Haiti, where it would be processed into mulch to fertilize plants bioengineered to provide high-quality paper pulp. ‘We could collect $38 a ton for the garbage,’ claims [Henry] Womack … who helped oversee construction of the base that the Reagan Administration-backed contras used to stage attacks against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.” Womack has similar dreams for Haiti: “We’d make a bundle, and the government could get enough to pay the whole army’s salaries.” (Jill Smolowe, “With Friends Like These: A Host of Shadowy Figures is Helping Haiti’s Military Rulers Hatch a Plot to Sideline Aristide Permanently,” Time Magazine, November 8, 1993.) Womack lived in a South Miami house with a couple: the sister of Michel François, who headed the death squads in Haiti and served as chief of its national police, and her husband.

Although most agents are not usually as candid as Womack, such plans are common. In August 1991, for example, Almany Enterprises, a company also headquartered in Miami, proposed shipping 30 million tons of incinerator ash from various U.S. cities to Panama over the subsequent four years. Almany would pay the government only $6.50 per ton of toxic waste received in Panama. The ash is believed to be highly contaminated with cadmium, copper, lead and zinc. Almany proposed to landfill the ash in marshlands near the free zone of Colon. Dozens of similar schemes are rampant. Throughout the Caribbean and Central America the devastating health crisis is exacerbated — if not directly caused — by international capital’s “recycling” of toxic wastes. (Indeed, Haitian women who have emigrated to the U.S. have been found to have double or triple the cervical cancer rates as women born in the U.S.)

Said Ehrl LaFontant of the Haiti Communications Project: “Instead of repatriating Haitian refugees to Haiti, the U.S. government should repatriate this toxic waste back to its own country.”

Toxic waste dumping in Haiti was, after all, a lucrative source of income for the Duvalier dictatorship. Former Haitian despot Duvalier profited handsomely in his relationship with the U.S., to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. That relationship included allowing U.S. toxic fertilizer to be dumped in Haiti, at the expense of the Haitian people.

Duvalier’s U.S.-based lawyer, Ron Brown, also did well, economically, by their relationship. In the early 1980s, Brown was a partner at the powerful Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow. Duvalier secured his services by paying him $150,000 as a retainer, and Brown went to work for the brutal dictator on Capitol Hill. Before his death while flying over Yugoslavia and scouting U.S. investment opportunities, Brown had been personally linked to Lillian Madsen, who had married into an extremely wealthy Haitian family with vast holdings in coffee and beer. (She later divorced.) Madsen lived in an expensive Washington townhouse that had been purchased for her in 1992 by the commerce secretary himself and by his son, D.C. lobbyist Michael Brown. The Madsens were major backers of Duvalier and among the main domestic financial backers of the September 1991 coup against elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Brown uttered nary a word to support the return of Aristide and democracy to Haiti, nor did he protest the U.S.’s toxic practices there.

Brown also represented Fritz Bennett, the brother of Michelle Bennett Duvalier, wife of the deposed dictator, when the brother was arrested in Puerto Rico for trafficking in narcotics. (Michelle Duvalier’s touch with reality herself can be somewhat shaky, as when, in exile, she said: “Flee Haiti? Why do you say we were fleeing Haiti? The president and I decided it was time to leave. Nobody can ever say we had to leave Haiti. We wanted to go.”)

Brown was also the subject of a scandal involving Vietnamese businessman Nguyen Van Hao, who was the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Development under the corrupt U.S.-backed Saigon dictatorship in the early 1970s. Hao alleged that Brown agreed to be paid $700,000 in exchange for his help in lifting a trade embargo against Vietnam. Hao, who previously lived in Haiti, and Brown had a mutual Haitian friend, Marc Butch Ashton — Lillian Madsen’s brother-in-law. Ashton was a financial advisor to Baby Doc. A large landholder and owner of Haiti Citrus, a lime exporter, Ashton allegedly used a squad of 40 Tonton Macoutes death squads to guard his properties. Poor farmers who leased their land to Haiti Citrus say they were intimidated and tortured by Ashton’s thugs when they tried to get better terms. (Counterpunch, December, 1993)

Brown himself detailed his services to Duvalier in a nine-page memo. Brown’s letter, written in French on Patton, Boggs & Blow letterhead, blamed Monsieur Le President’s problems on an unfair image created by the U.S. media. As to his efforts on Haiti’s behalf, Brown wrote that “We continue to dedicate a considerable amount of time to the improvement of relations between the Republic of Haiti and members of congress and the American government, with the goal of substantially increasing American aid to Haiti. Early success in this regard,” crowed Brown, “is essentially the result of our Washington team.” (Counterpunch, December 1993)

Brown also informed Duvalier that he was looking after Haiti’s long-term interests by maintaining good relations with leading American political figures:

“While we have always enjoyed excellent relations with the government of President Reagan, we have also established personal contacts with almost all the Democratic candidates in order to ensure that we continue to have access to the White House regardless of who wins the presidential election in 1984.” Brown boasted that his “leading role in the Democratic National Committee has served us in these efforts, while a certain number of my colleagues in the Republican Party assure the permanence of our access and the excellence of our relations with the government of President Reagan.”

Juan Gonzalez, writing in the New York Daily News, continued the story:

“When Brown wrote his memo, Amnesty International had accused the Duvalier regime of torture, detentions without trial and `disappearances’.

“Here is some of what Brown reported to Baby Doc:

” ‘Despite the unfair image of Haiti by the American media, and despite the opposition expressed by some members of Congress, it is certain that today … a growing number of people — both members of Congress and government officials — stand ready to defend the interests of Haiti. This … is essentially due to the work of our Washington team. …

” ‘We continue to pay a great deal of attention to the Black Caucus and to other liberal members of Congress … [who] are now, thanks to our efforts, ready to help. Although some of them continue to make negative comments about Haiti, all, without exception, have proved to be cooperative on the issue of aid.’ “

Brown was reporting on his success in getting Congress to say one thing but do another. On foreign aid, he proved more than worth his annual retainer. While he represented Haiti, annual U.S. assistance increased from $35 million to $55 million.

Brown offered not a word in the memo about human rights.

Brown went on to serve as President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, which is one of the agencies that oversees toxic waste shipments and promotes corporate investment in Haiti, particularly in the notorious assembly zones established by the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program there. (The assembly zones were populated by the IMF’s removal of 1/3rd of the rural population from their lands, now to be used for export crops to the U.S. and elsewhere).

In his confirmation hearings before the Senate, Brown was not asked a single question concerning toxic wastes, nor of his relationship with the Duvalier dictatorship.

MITCHEL COHEN hosts “Steal This Radio,” a weekly show on http://www.NYTalkRadio.net, and is the Chair of WBAI radio’s (99.5-FM) “Local Station Board”. He works with the Brooklyn Greens / Green Party.

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Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City.

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