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Public Spurs Cleanup : West Europe Has Its Fill of Toxic Waste

Times Staff Writer

The Karin B is a small ship, but its odyssey stirred a continent.

Laden with 2,000 tons of highly toxic industrial waste, some of it seeping from battered drums onto its decks, the Karin B found itself a pariah, steaming from port to port through the European summer in search of a place to deposit its unwanted cargo.

An angry West European public suddenly seized on the hapless vessel as a symbol of its many environmental woes and officialdom’s inability to deal with them. “The press described that ship as if it came from another planet,” said Vittorio Silano, director of pollution control at Italy’s Environment Ministry.

After more than two months, the Karin B’s ordeal ended here. Today, the ship lies in a remote corner of this sprawling industrial port, while specialists working in oxygen masks and protective clothing carefully repackage for storage its cargo of 14,000 drums and assorted debris.

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Unloading Cost: $11 Million

The unloading, scheduled for completion sometime this spring, will cost $11 million.

Dealing with Western Europe’s toxic wastes--every year there is the equivalent of 12,000 Karin B cargoes--won’t be so easy.

A string of disasters, including the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the massive 1986 chemicals spill in the Rhine, killer algae in the Adriatic and dying seals in the North Sea, have seriously shaken public confidence in officialdom’s ability to deal with environmental problems.

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In a part of the world where people are raised with a sense that those in government know best, uneasy European authorities have watched complacency and trust melt into skepticism and, occasionally, open hostility.

Mass Resignation

Last September in the Italian port of Manfredonia, the town council resigned en masse and mobs went on a three-day rampage, blockading entrances to the city and setting fire to the town hall door, in protest against a central government order to let a toxic waste carrier dock there.

The vessel, with a cargo from the same Nigerian dump as that on the Karin B, eventually fled. It now lies off the Sicilian port of Augusta, a de facto leper.

In Britain, public anger at the Karin B’s appearance off Plymouth, fanned by screaming tabloid headlines like the Daily Mail’s “Get Out,” quickly cooled initial British interest in taking the ship.

Britain also quickly ratified a 1987 European Community directive tightening regulations on hazardous waste trade.

“NIMBY--Not In My Back Yard--it’s the same everywhere,” noted Giovanni Barca, a toxic waste specialist for the Tuscan region’s Environment Department and the man supervising the Karin B’s unloading. “Nobody wants other peoples’ garbage.”

In a region less than one-third the size of the United States, with 50% more people and few open spaces, this new mood has made disposing of these wastes one of the most serious of a growing list of ecological problems.

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The cheap options, such as dumping in the Third World, are already being closed off, as the story behind the Karin B so dramatically proved.

The cargo it carried, much of it of Italian origin, had been ordered out of an illegal dump in Koko, Nigeria, after sharp Nigerian-Italian diplomatic exchanges.

Modern-day Flying Dutchmen like the Karin B--and the publicity that inevitably surrounds them--have helped spur efforts to conclude a U.N. treaty curbing toxic waste exports.

U.N. officials are hopeful that the accord can be signed next month in Basel.

“We’re moving in the direction of a global convention,” said Harvey Yakowitz, who monitors toxic waste shipments for the Paris-based club of industrialized nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Shipments to West Africa have already plummeted, reducing a trade as lucrative as it was potentially deadly.

The chance to get rid of waste in crude Third World dumps for a fraction of the disposal costs in the West offered quick, easy money to those in the trade and veritable fortunes to impoverished nations.

According to the international environmental group Greenpeace, tiny Guinea-Bissau on the westernmost bulge of Africa agreed early last year to accept toxic wastes shipped by U.S. and European private companies in deals valued at about $600 million--three times the country’s gross national product.

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But last May, the Organization of African Unity, arguing that no price was worth the continent’s future, voted a blanket ban on such imports while the Nigerians, somewhat belatedly, posted vigilante groups at their ports to prevent foreign ships from dumping illegally.

Industrial nations tightened controls, too.

Deep-Sea Dumping

Growing awareness of polluted waters around Europe has reinforced commitments to close off deep-sea dumping and incineration.

The region’s No. 1 industrial power, West Germany, plans to phase out dumping hazardous wastes at sea by the end of next year; Belgian authorities have imposed similar restrictions, and an international ban on burning toxic wastes at sea seems likely by the mid-1990s.

Even Western Europe’s most popular dumping ground away from home--the East Bloc--has come under a cloud.

For years, West European countries have looked to Eastern Europe as a willing, accessible recipient for their toxic effluents. East Germany and Romania especially have viewed the trade as an easy way to earn hard currency.

“The stuff that goes to the Third World gets headlines, but the real business goes east,” said Yakowitz of the OECD. “About 90% of what gets exported (from Western Europe) goes there.”

The East Germans for years have deposited much of the toxic waste they accept near the town of Schoenberg, 10 miles east of the West German border. But to the horror of West German authorities, recent geological studies have disclosed the very real possibility that this waste could enter the ground water and trickle back into the West.

The Schoenberg affair has raised doubts about the long-term advisability of shipping dangerous material to nearby but poorly administered dumps.

It has also sown considerable consternation among the citizens of the nearest West German city, Luebeck, the government of which has pursued several West German states through the courts in an attempt to stop them from using the site.

“It’s a big issue here,” said Horst Westfall, spokesman for the Luebeck city administration. “There is a real fear that the city’s reservoir could be contaminated.”

In another twist to this trade across the European divide, untreated effluent dumped from East German and Czechoslovak factories directly into the Elbe River have floated downstream and settled in such quantities around the river’s mouth at Hamburg that mud dredged from the city’s harbor has been declared hazardous.

Now Hamburg authorities are negotiating to pay the East Germans to take the material back.

As avenues for disposing of these wastes outside the region diminish, and the search for new dump sites at home intensifies, European governments face an increasingly wary public, less willing to accept the sometimes breezy official assurances that have placated them in the past. Evidence indicates that the skepticism is warranted.

In Britain, entrepreneurs spawned by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s can-do capitalism have found hefty profits in disposing of unwanted toxic wastes, including fly ash from Zurich, Switzerland, contaminated soil from Denmark and acid wastes from West Germany.

But despite a staggering, sevenfold jump in toxic waste imports in Britain, three-quarters of the 79 local government authorities responsible for waste disposal control have no formal plan to deal with it.

“It’s a disgraceful story, given what we know about the problems of hazardous and toxic wastes,” said Hugh Rossi, chairman of the House of Commons Environment Committee, winding up nine months of hearings on the issue.

Where tough laws to control toxic dumping have been passed, they have often had little impact because they are enforced by overstretched, understaffed local governments.

“The law is strong, but enforcement isn’t,” Barca said. “There’s too much traffic, and the local administration isn’t very strong or efficient.”

The variety of toxic brews discovered aboard the Karin B, many which are believed originally to have slipped unauthorized through northern Italian ports, testifies to that.

Walking through a dockside warehouse built specifically to handle the ship’s waste, Barca said that 21 different substances have been found in the 2,800 drums opened so far. Pointing to two containers set apart from the others, he shrugged and said: “Biological waste. Maybe.”

Stanley Clinton Davis, a British lawyer who recently completed a five-year assignment as the European Community’s commissioner for environmental affairs, said: “There is a need for more centralized control. It’s quite clear the EC’s trade in toxic waste has often been conducted with complete indifference to the potential dangers to the environment and human health.”

If the people who are supposed to monitor this trade have at times shown indifference, the general population has not.

Responding to public pressure, Livorno authorities agreed to let the Karin B dock there only on condition that the cargo not remain there. Instead, it will go to the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna, and the authorities emphasize that storage there is only temporary. Some material may be re-exported, Barca said.

With public resistance on the rise and avenues for disposal diminishing, government officials admit they have a problem.

West Germany, for example, will need 10 new waste incinerators capable of handling toxic materials before the end of the century. Few municipalities have volunteered as sites.

In Italy, where there is capacity to dispose of only a third of the toxic waste produced, government officials say the outlook for building new facilities is bleak.

“There’s no problem with funding,” Silano said. “It’s public acceptance that’s the problem. Everyone says put it somewhere else, but there is no ‘somewhere else.’ ”

Toxic waste experts believe this level of public resistance will force governments to the politically easier option of expanding existing sites. There is also talk of upgrading East Bloc dumps to Western standards and ensuring that they are run on an environmentally sound basis.

“This hasn’t happened yet, but it probably will,” Yakowitz said.

Some governments have gone to the heart of the problem, launching efforts to cut the levels of waste production. For example, a 1986 West German law gives the legislature power to impose reductions on the amount of toxic wastes generated by industry. The law also offers subsidies to small and medium-sized companies that substitute more expensive but less toxic materials in their production processes.

Sweden has outlawed the use of cadmium in paints and plasticizers, and the Dutch government is trying to persuade its battery makers to stop using mercury and cadmium.

“If such efforts are successful, the quantity of toxic wastes generated can be kept at the present level for the next several years,” Yakowitz said.

This would provide a breathing space for developing what Yakowitz called “more holistic” codes of practice to control the problem.

“It’s going to be the major thrust of the ‘90s,” he said. “But none of it is going to be easy.”

Times researcher Christine Courtney contributed to this article.


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