Fisher Price Inc., the giant, New York-based toy manufacturer, has been fined $25,000 for illegally transporting 7 tons of lead-contaminated hazardous wastes from its subsidiary in Tijuana to a sister facility in Chula Vista.
The criminal case is believed to be the first-ever prosecution alleging the illegal importation of hazardous wastes from Mexico into the United States.
There have been various successful prosecutions in recent years charging the illicit transportation of wastes from the United States into Mexico, but this is the first time that the reverse scenario has been charged or proven, said Melanie K. Pierson, assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, who handled the matter.
The prosecutor declined to comment on the company's motive. But she noted that it is three times more expensive to transport hazardous wastes than nontoxic products.
A Fisher Price official, appearing before U.S. Magistrate Barry Ted Moskowitz this week, admitted that the firm had knowingly transported the toxic trash into the United States without the required paperwork, Pierson said.
Fisher Price executives neglected to include the mandated paperwork because they did not believe that the material was deemed hazardous under U.S. law, according to Karl Lytz, an attorney representing the toy manufacturer. Saving transport money was not a consideration, Lytz said.
Under Mexican law, plants in business as part of the mostly foreign-owned maquiladora industry--such as the Fisher Price subsidiary--are obliged to ship most hazardous wastes to the United States for disposal.
Maquiladoras, which are concentrated in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities where there is a vast reservoir of cheap labor, import materials from the United States and subsequently produce a wide range of consumer goods for export to the U.S. market. But the plants also generate a large volume of toxic residues.
U.S. law requires that all hazardous material be properly labeled, and that it be transported exclusively by handlers specifically licensed to haul the material. The so-called "manifest" paperwork system allows authorities to track hazardous materials and provides identifying data designed to ensure public safety in case of spillage or other accident.
The waste in question was so-called solder dross, a lead-contaminated material left over following the production of electronic circuit boards at the Fisher Price plant in Tijuana. If ingested, lead can attack the brain and nervous system.
For about one year beginning in September, 1989, Fisher Price transported about 7 tons of the wastes from its Tijuana plant to its sister facility in Chula Vista without the required paperwork, according to prosecutors.
The toy manufacturer stored the material at its Chula Vista plant until it had amassed an amount sufficient to transport for recycling--this time with the proper documentation--to facilities elsewhere in the United States.
The shipments ceased in August, 1990, when U.S. Customs inspectors at the Otay Mesa port of entry discovered the waste in a northbound truck that originated at the Fisher Price plant in Tijuana, said Lytz, the company lawyer. The material is now being shipped to the United States with the appropriate documentation, Lytz said.
Apart from the $25,000 fine--the maximum allowable for the charges, according to the U.S. attorney's office--Fisher Price also agreed to make a restitution of $1,000 to U.S. Customs to offset the costs of laboratory analysis. The company was also required to pay a special $125 assessment.