Transboundary dumping of hazardous waste

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Hazardous waste containers. (Source: U.S. EPA)

Transboundary dumping of hazardous waste refers to the export, often surreptitiously, of hazardous waste by developed and industrialized countries to developing nations, usually sub-Sahara African countries. Hazardous waste, though undesirable, is the inevitable by-product of industrial development and several manufacturing processes. If improperly managed, these wastes may result in substantial adverse human health and environmental effects. Proper management of hazardous waste however requires the establishment of treatment and disposal facilities such as waste incinerators and landfills. While these facilities may be desirable and often required by law, public opposition, more than physical, technological, environmental and economic factors tends to stifle the siting of new facilities and the expansion of existing ones. This phenomenon which is highly prevalent especially in industrialized countries is not unexpected because hazardous waste incinerators and landfills are good examples of LULUs – locally-unwanted-land-uses, which nobody wants in his or her backyard, an example of the NIMBY syndrome (not-in-my-back-yard). The success rate of siting these facilities especially in the U.S. is so dismal that it seems impossible to site them “in anybody’s backyard”.

However, as hazardous wastes are being generated in increasingly large quantities, and as environmental laws become more stringent in industrialized countries, waste-generating industries tend to frantically search for a “path of least resistance” for the disposal of these wastes. This search has led industries and the governments of developed and industrialized nations to focus on exporting these wastes to developing countries especially sub-Sahara African countries. These countries serve as prime targets for at least four reasons. First, most of these countries have relatively high levels of poverty, low Gross National Product (GNP) and high foreign debt, hence importing hazardous waste as a source of foreign exchange can be highly tempting. For example, Guinea Bissau, one of the poorest 20 countries in the world was to be paid $600 million for storing and disposing of imported hazardous waste. At the time of the offer, the amount was twice the country’s foreign debt, and about four times its Gross National Product. Second, lack of stringency of environmental regulations such as requirement for high performance and health-based standards for the design, siting, and closure of toxic waste disposal facilities, and the low level of implementation of existing policies are the norms in most of these countries. Toxic waste treatment and disposal facilities can therefore be built cheaply and without considerations for adverse human health and environmental effects. In Dakar, Senegal, the hazardous waste landfill is built very close to the water table thereby posing a threat to the drinking water supply of the estimated 2.5 million residents of Dakar, the capital city. Third, high level of corruption is prevalent in sub-Sahara African countries hence government officials both elected and appointed, can easily be bribed to surreptitiously import toxic waste into their countries. The unregulated dumping of toxic waste on Kassa Island in Guinea involved the collaboration of a Guinean company and the complicity of some officials of the country’s Ministry of Trade. Fourth, most sub-Saharan African countries lack the technical expertise necessary for the proper identification of both the elements of the imported hazardous waste and its human health and environmental impacts. The exporting companies are aware of this lack of technical expertise on the part of these destination countries; hence they often disguise the hazardous wastes as useful commodities that are relatively harmless. Within this context, the wastes are often shipped or labeled as recyclables, liquid fertilizers, road construction or brick-making materials. The dumping of hazardous waste in these and other developing countries is usually shrouded in secrecy on the part of both the exporters and the destination countries. The exporters’ clandestine activities often include falsification of custom papers and invoices. Even when the destination country agrees to the dumping, the transaction is usually kept secret and often denied if the transaction becomes public knowledge. The President of the Republic of Benin denied the report of an agreement, earlier confirmed, to dispose of substantial quantities of imported hazardous waste near the Nigeria-Republic of Benin border. The vehement denial which came after public disclosure of the proposed transactions may have been due at least in part to the threats made by the Nigerian government to forcibly prevent the disposal of the hazardous waste at the border. Notwithstanding the short-term financial benefit of importing hazardous waste, most of these destination countries do not want to be characterized, at least openly, as the garbage can or dumping ground for the waste — any type of waste — generated by the industrialized and affluent countries. While some transactions generated little or no controversies, two highly-publicized incidents of dumping of toxic waste which backfired were reported in June 1988. More than 15,000 tons of incinerator ash from the city of Philadelphia, U.S. was dumped on Kassa Island in Guinea by Bulkhandling, a Norwegian company. The dumping was reportedly carried out with the collaboration of a Guinean company, the complicity of four officials of Guinea’s Ministry of Trade, and the reported involvement of the Norwegian Consulate Office in Conakry, Guinea. The four Ministry of Trade officials each received a four-year jail term while the Guinean government ordered that the ash be removed. Also, more than 8,000 drums of hazardous waste including the highly toxic PCBs were stored on the property of a Nigerian citizen, Nana, in Koko (a small delta port) by an Italian businessman, Gianfranco. Nana was reportedly paid$100 per month for the “service”. More than 50 people that were involved in the illegal dumping were jailed. However, it was not until the Nigerian government seized an Italian ship and several Italian citizens that the Italian government agreed to remove the hazardous waste.

Some regional and global initiatives have been established to control or at least reduce international shipment of hazardous waste, and its effects. These include the 1984 and 1985 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Initiatives Concerning Transfrontier Movements of Hazardous Waste (OECD Initiatives), United Nations Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal (Basel Convention), European Union/African, Caribbean, and Pacific initiative (EU/ACP initiative), and the 1988 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resolution (ECOWAS resolution).

The 1984 and 1985 OECD Initiatives require member countries to establish legally binding systems for transboundary movements of hazardous waste between member countries and to non-member countries. Member countries are required to provide adequate information about the "cradle to grave" movement of the hazardous waste, and ensure that the treatment and disposal facilities in the destination countries can adequately minimize adverse human health and environmental effects. The Basel Convention which has been ratified by 158 countries as of February 2004 came into effect in May 1992. This global treaty prohibits exporting hazardous waste to countries that lack the technical, administrative and legal capability to manage the waste in an environmentally-safe manner. The treaty establishes procedures for notifying the importing countries about the elements of the hazardous waste and the risks involved.

However, similar to most other global environmental treaties that pose unequal risks and benefits to developed and developing nations, the implementation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is fraught with uncertainties. The destination countries may not be fully informed about the risks, and the parties—the exporting and the importing countries—are not required by the treaty to monitor the disposal procedures to ensure minimal adverse human health and environmental effects. Also, the implementation of the Basel Convention may be hampered by the requirements of international trade laws such as General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). If hazardous waste is viewed as a product with materials that can be recycled and reused, and if waste disposal is considered as a service, limiting or restricting the export of hazardous waste to developing countries may be contrary to the requirements of GATT. GATT precludes industrialized nations from using nontariff barriers to limit the access of developing countries to any new kind of commodity or service. This provision is similar to that of the Commerce Clause of the U.S Constitution which mandates free flow of goods and services between states. The Commerce Clause considers hazardous waste as a good or product—an item of interstate commerce—and thereby prevents a hazardous waste treatment or disposal facility from imposing any restrictions on out-of-state hazardous waste.

Many developing countries are usually wary about the sincerity of global initiatives, and have therefore established regional initiatives for the control of transboundary movement of hazardous waste. Such regional initiatives are usually more stringent and they establish stricter criteria for international movement of hazardous waste. For example, following the Basel Convention, 12 member states of European Union (EU), and more than 60 African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries established a treaty that banned the export of hazardous and nuclear waste from the EU countries to the member countries of ACP. The treaty also prohibits the ACP countries from importing these wastes from any other non-EU countries. Also, the ECOWAS resolution calls for specific penalties for those involved in dumping toxic wastes in member countries. Subsequently, member countries such as Ivory Coast adopted a law that specifies up to 20 years in jail and fines up to \$1.6 million for anyone convicted of hazardous waste dumping.

The potential for adverse human health and environmental effects of transboundary dumping of hazardous waste in sub-Sahara Africa can not be overemphasized. As noted earlier, these countries usually have lax environmental regulations, and may not even have any standards for the proper design of hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities. The tendency therefore is that these wastes will not be disposed of in an environmentally-safe manner. Also, there is a general lack of the awareness of the effects of hazardous waste and its residue. Several residents of Koko, Nigeria used the empty containers of the illegally-dumped hazardous waste for domestic purposes—storing drinking water for humans and for domestic animals. The problems of adverse health effects of improperly-managed hazardous waste may be particularly exacerbated in the region because of the high prevalence of infectious diseases and low nutritional status which may lessen the citizens’ physiological defense against toxic substances. Also, many of these countries lack the adequate health care facilities and personnel that are necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of hazardous waste-related health problems.

Apart from the health effects, the dumping of hazardous waste in sub-Sahara African countries has moral undertones. In fact, the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1980s, Major-General Nwachukwu, described the dumping as a moral equivalent of war. The idea of targeting sub-Saharan countries for the disposal of hazardous wastes by developed and industrialized countries is eerily similar to the concept of environmental racism in the U.S whereby noxious facilities are allegedly disproportionately sited in minority neighborhoods. Similar to sub-Sahara Africa, minority neighborhoods offer the least resistance to the location of these facilities because of the residents’ lack of political and economic clout. The unregulated and often illegal export of hazardous waste to developing countries is akin to dumping the problems of the industrialized nations on individuals who are least able to protect themselves. The issue should therefore attract greater international concern and remedy.