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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Toxic Waste Traffic Hits Romania

Air Date: Week of September 25, 1992

Reese Erlich reports on the importation of toxic wastes, disguised as agricultural chemicals, to a small Romanian town. Romania is one of the latest destinations for the flow of toxics wastes which began after the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Transcript

CURWOOD: When the Iron Curtain fell away from Eastern Europe, some Western industrialists, especially the Germans, began taking advantage of the chaos to the East and the lust for Western currencies by shipping in deadly toxic wastes. At first Poland was favored, but as authorities there clamped down, poisonous waste merchants shifter further east to countries such as Romania. Reporter Reese Erlich recently visited the small Romanian town of Miercurea Sibiului, where earlier this year Germans exported about 600 tons of compounds. They were labeled as legitimate farm chemicals, but some have proved to be dangerous wastes.

(Sound of rapping , dogs barking)

ERLICH: The hot Transylvanian sun beats down on a dilapidated old warehouse, watched over by a mangy dog and a guard with alcohol on his breath. Both are feeling cantankerous today. Although accompanied by the town's vice mayor, the guard won't let visitors into the Montana Company warehouse. A translator explains.

GUARD (translated): We are not allowed to enter as long as we don't have a policeman. So they are going to try to find a policeman.

ERLICH: Local residents are furious at the Montana Company and at the Romanian government for allowing the hundreds of barrels of toxic waste sitting in the shed to cross the border from Germany.

(Sound of hoofbeats)

Farmer Maria Huna momentarily pulls her horse-drawn cart to a stop and expresses a common sentiment.

HUNA (translated): They have to take them and move them out of here, because we all feel they are dangerous.

ERLICH: The police chief finally arrives and escorts us into the warehouse. It's really just a roof shading the barrels. No walls protect the containers from the wind and rain. Hundreds of barrels sit on the ground. Some appear to contain legitimate pesticides and fertilizers. Others are already rusting with chemicals oozing out. Vice Mayor Liviu Buta describes the label on one barrel.

BUTA (translated): There is a Trizilin-25 barrel which contains dioxin. It's very, very poisonous. The other barrel is not to be used on plants. So that can't be fertilizer. This one is strictly banned by a harsh law in Germany.

ERLICH: At the nearby Sibiu County Jail, Dan Alexandru, co-owner of Montana Company, walks out of his cell.

(Sound of jail door)

Alexandru pled guilty to falsifying customs documents and is serving a three-month sentence. Romania has no specific laws prohibiting imports of toxic wastes, so Alexandru was prosecuted on technical customs violations. He says that he was just buying legitimate agricultural chemicals and selling them on consignment in Romania. Vice Mayor Buta claims Alexandru was paid to import the toxics, using the legitimate chemicals as a cover. In either case, Alexandru says he was not working alone. He says directors of the local agriculture and environment ministries gave him permission. Alexandru explains.

ALEXANDRU (translated): I had an offer from a German citizen to bring fertilizers and pesticides. I contacted Romanians who were interested in this because in Romania there are shortages of such products. At the local department of agriculture, and of plant protection, institutions which are concern with such products.
ERLICH: Did he contact the directors of those local . . .?
ALEXANDRU (translated): Yes, the directors of those institutions.

ERLICH: Romanian officials at all levels deny that they or anyone else in the government okayed the shipments. But the case illustrates what many say is a growing problem. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe's weak economies and lax environmental enforcement have combined to make the region vulnerable to ecologically disastrous deals with Western fast-buck artists. The environmental group Greenpeace, for instance, has documented 200 cases of toxic wastes being shipped from Germany to Eastern Europe, mostly to Poland. But since Poland cracked down on the shipments, Greenpeace says, companies have started sending more to Bulgaria, the Baltics and Romania. Sibiu's Vice Mayor Maxim Aurel places the blame on Western European governments because they fail to stop the shipments.

AUREL (translated): I t seems to me there is a plan of the developed countries in Western Europe, and especially of the German state, to get rid of their toxic waste selling it or giving it as a gift to the less developed countries of Eastern Europe.

ERLICH: But other officials don't make such blanket indictments. Nicolae Nan, Sibiu County's prefect or head administrator, says the individual criminals involved should be blamed, not the governments of the exporting countries.

NAN (translated): It is not the countries that send the toxic waste. There are private enterprises and those guilty in the west are certain persons who want to get easy money and they found interested people to do the same here.

ERLICH: That view seems to be shared by Romanian President Ion Iliescu. The scandal has become so big that he recently personally inspected the Montana Company warehouse. His administration has set up a commission to investigate the case. But he was reluctant to assess blame or make specific commitments for the future. The solution, Iliescu says, is to enforce existing laws.

ILIESCU: To apply the law and to ensure the control, to the frontier and inside the country.
ERLICH: Do you think Romania needs to do anything to change its laws, strengthen the penalties, for example, for doing this?
ILIESCU: It is necessary to do it, to strengthen the law provisions in this direction.

ERLICH: For its part, the German Government has denied any responsibility for the original shipments. But it is considering criminal charges against the Germans involved in the illegal activity. The German Environment Minister has spoken out against what he calls a growing "waste mafia" in his country, and urges stronger efforts to stop the illegal exports. Germany has reportedly expressed a willingness to take back the chemicals store in Romania. But to date, no trucks have come to pick them up.

(Sound of warehouse, arguing in Romanian)

Meanwhile, back in Miercurea Sibiului, residents are anxious that the Montana Company warehouse be cleared out. Whenever a group of people gather these days, it seems they have one topic of discussion. Resident Lumina Dures expresses a common sentiment.

DURES (translated): We are in danger each hour, every minute. The containers are old. For 20 years and of course they are rusted and can have leaks. The first thing to do with them is to get them back, or either to get them a proper place to deposit them.
ERLICH: Send them back?
DURES: Send them back to Germany where they came from.

ERLICH: For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Miercurea Sibiului, Romania.

 

 

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