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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Greenpeace Says International Agreements Fail to Stem Toxic Traffic

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Jim Puckett, the European Toxic Trade Coordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace, about the shipment of toxic waste to Eastern Europe, and a reported agreement to ship waste to war-torn Somalia.


CURWOOD: The environmental group Greenpeace was among the first to blow the whistle on the Romanian dumping. More recently, Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program have been investigating reported plans by a confusing web of Italian and Swiss companies to dump massive loads of toxic wastes in war-torn and famine-ravaged Somalia. A number of international agreements are supposed to regulate the trade in toxic waste, including a 1989 convention signed in Basel, Switzerland. But Greenpeace says the agreements have failed to curtail the trade. Jim Puckett is Greenpeace's European Toxic Trade Coordinator. He says the confusion surrounding the Somali deal is a strong case in point.

PUCKETT: Well, right now it's a big guessing game. All we know is that we have a contract which was signed which looks very real. When we investigate these parties, we're finding all kinds of subterfuge and shaky relations and former arms trading and this sort of thing. So we're dealing with some very interesting characters, to say the least, and how much of it is false and how much of it is gonna turn out to be true, we don't know yet.

CURWOOD: What are the fears that you at Greenpeace and the folks at the United Nations Environmental Programme have about the proposal to export waste from Europe into Somalia?

PUCKETT: Well, obviously this is the worst kind of injury to add to an already injurious situation in Somalia. It would set back any kind of recovery hundreds of years, because we would have massive quantities of some of the most toxic compounds dumped in probably a very hazardous fashion. But politically it has so many different implications, this type of trade; if any one country were to accept this type of agreement to take poisons for profit, we would see massive quantities flowing to that country, kind of a black hole scenario.

CURWOOD: Now as I understand it, the government of Somalia, whatever that is these days, and things do seem to be in flux over there, has agreed to this import. Why shouldn't this sovereign nation be allowed to take this material?

PUCKETT: This is the fundamental flaw of the Basel convention. The Basel convention is based on the idea that if it's a theoretic agreement between two governments, then the trade can go ahead. But the problem with that is that very often these agreements are not signed by true representatives of either the people or the environment of that territory, and in some countries, especially war-torn countries like Somalia, we don't even know who the government is. And in this case, there was a health minister, who is now, they're saying he's not really a health minister, who signed the document. So here we have clear abuse which could have been legal under the Basel convention.

CURWOOD: The story about Romania that we heard earlier and the questions about Somalia come onto a scene that's been pretty quiet for the last year or two about these kinds of reports. Have we in the news media simply not been paying attention, or in fact are we seeing a resurgence of an international trade in toxic wastes?

PUCKETT: It's frightening, it's a resurgence, it's almost an epidemic now. What we have since the seventies and eighties, we've had increasingly strict regulations being passed in the North. Citizens have rebelled against having their land and their air befouled by toxic materials, and they're saying no. And the disposal costs have gone up and up as a result. And so we're having this waste pileup, and it's like a balloon that's expanding and expanding and it's going to burst, and it goes in the direction of least resistance.

CURWOOD: Do you think the solution to this problem is to have a total ban on international trade in toxic waste?

PUCKETT: That's correct, especially an export ban. Countries have got to combine , of course, an export ban with policies that will rapidly move toward the reduction of waste.

CURWOOD: Well, what about a situation where a country produces a toxic waste that another country could better dispose of? A total ban on trade would prohibit that.

PUCKETT: The problem with the disposal approach to waste is that you will never have an incentive to reduce it, which is what everyone agrees is the ultimate answer. As long as you can set up arrangements whereby you can shunt your problems off on others, there's going to be no incentive for industry to institute clean technologies that do not produce waste.

CURWOOD: Jim Puckett, is the international community going to revisit the question of international trade in toxic wastes in light of the situations in Eastern Europe and in Somalia?

PUCKETT: Well, I think they're gonna have to; the international trade in hazardous wastes is not only an environmental question, it's a political one, and I don't think the North can afford to dump on its southern neighbors and get away with it. There is a possibility that we can make that Basel convention what it was really intended to be, which is something that would prevent the waste trade rather than just legalize it by a control mechanism. And so we're going to be going to the first meeting of the Basel convention, which happens in November, and we're going to push the OECD countries real hard with all of the evidence that we've gathered to finally take responsibility for the waste which they produce and to not dump it on their southern neighbors.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Jim Puckett is the toxic trade coordinator for Greenpeace in Europe, talking to us from Amsterdam. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

PUCKETT: Thank you.



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