Delegates from 116 nations on Wednesday adopted an unprecedented treaty designed to restrict the international movement of toxic wastes.
Thirty-four of the delegates promptly signed the treaty, which was approved after 18 months of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. Among the countries that did not sign was the United States. Its delegates said that formal acceptance, as with any treaty, will be up to the U.S. Senate.
Other countries’ delegates also said they will have to refer the treaty to their governments.
“This is the best we could do,” said Andrew Sens, director of the State Department Office of Environment Protection, who was a member of the U.S. delegation. “There are a number of useful features. We will take it home and look at it.”
Many countries hailed the treaty, particularly members of the European Community, although the British delegate, the Earl of Caithness, who is an official of Britain’s Environment Ministry, declared:
“We believe the treaty doesn’t go far enough. We should deal with all waste material, not just that considered hazardous.”
Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, expressed strong objections to the treaty. It had called for a complete ban on the export of toxic wastes.
Kevin Stairs, who headed a Greenpeace observer delegation, said: “The delegates didn’t come close to realizing the potential of this conference. The convention as written is so weak that it will encourage the trade in hazardous wastes.”
Members of Greenpeace summed up their view of the conference’s outcome by draping a huge banner across a building opposite the conference center with the message: “Danger. Basel Convention Legalizes Toxic Terror.”
Geared to Protect Poor Nations
In essence, the treaty is intended to prevent the wealthy industrial countries from dumping hazardous waste in the poorer nations of the Third World. But Mostafa Tolba, an Egyptian scientist who is executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said:
“Our agreement has not halted the commerce in poison. But it has signaled the international resolve to eliminate the menace (that) hazardous wastes pose to the welfare of our shared environment and to the health of all the world’s peoples.”
Diplomats said the most important provision of the treaty is a prohibition against hazardous waste being shipped to a country without that government’s written consent. It also bans shipments through third countries without government authorization.
These strictures are designed to end what some African nations have called “garbage imperialism.”
Greenpeace, and some African diplomats, complained privately that without a total ban on the movement of hazardous waste, corrupt governments will be tempted to accept toxic materials in exchange for large fees.
The ambivalent attitude of many governments toward the treaty--approving its concept by consensus yet harboring doubts about ratification--was summed up by a delegate from Turkey, which has been a victim of dumping.
“Turkey,” he said, “has agreed to sign the global convention but believes that, as it stands, it has a number of weaknesses and that unless strengthened through appropriate instruments in the future, it has little chance of addressing and solving effectively the real issues.”
He urged tougher measures to deal with the problem.
All the delegates accepted that toxic wastes, if not properly disposed of, can cause birth defects, miscarriages, various diseases including cancer and contamination of the Earth and water supplies.
In recent years, the toxic waste transfer industry has become a big international business, for many developed countries have strict regulations against the local disposal of such contaminants.
In the last year or so, public attention has been drawn to cargo ships that have loaded toxic waste materials for secret offloading in Third World countries.
Poisonous ash has been dumped on Haitian beaches, drums of toxic industrial waste in Lebanon, lethal garbage in Djibouti and other African sites. The deals have usually been worked out through waste contractors with operators in the unwary host countries.
In some cases, once people realized that their country was being used as a dumping ground, the ships were forced to take back their noxious cargoes, and some have been forced to move from port to port in a vain effort to find a willing recipient.
One ship, the Karin B, recently dumped its cargo contaminated with carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from Italy at Koko Beach, Nigeria, then was forced to take it back. It was last reported swinging at anchor off the Italian port of Leghorn, its cargo still on board.
But another cargo ship, the Khian Sea, appears to have beaten the game. According to Greenpeace researchers, the Khian Sea carried toxic ash from Philadelphia around the Caribbean Sea for two years, then made its way to the Indian Ocean and recently reappeared--empty.
The Greenpeace people believe the cargo was simply dumped at sea.