Philly Waste Go Home
by Kenny Bruno
Multinational Monitor magazine, January / February
January marked the tenth anniver) sary of one of the longest
running and most notorious cases of U.S. waste dumping in the
Third World. And for the first time in those 10 years, there is
a fighting chance that 4,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash from
Philadelphia, dumped in Gonaives Bay, Haiti will finally be coming
The saga began in the mid-1980s, when Philadelphia encountered
serious difficulties in disposing of ash from its municipal waste
incinerator. The reason was common to ash generated by mass-burn
facilities around the country: incineration concentrates toxic
metals in the ash, making it a threat to soil and groundwater
wherever it is buried. As landfills for toxic waste became controversial
and expensive, unscrupulous brokers looked overseas for a "solution."
The Philadelphia ash was especially problematic, as it contained
detectable levels of dioxins and furans, as well as relatively
high levels of lead and cadmium. (Despite these levels, all U.S.
municipal incinerator ash was automatically exempted from hazardous
waste regulations, because it was derived from household waste.
That exemption has since been eliminated. ) Philadelphia eventually
stockpiled a whopping quarter million tons of the cinders at its
Roxborough facility. In Fall 1987, it even attempted to export
the entire ash mountain to Panama for road building, a scheme
that was rejected by the Panamanian authorities after a Greenpeace
In September 1996, 14,000 tons of the accumulated ash did
leave Philadelphia, on the cargo ship Khian Sea. But the vessel
quickly ran into a series of improbable rejections. Over the next
16 months, the Khian Sea's caustic cargo was turned away by three
U.S. states and five Caribbean island nations. It traveled as
far as West Africa looking for a home, to no avail.
Finally, in the last days of 1987, armed with a bogus import
certificate falsely labeling the cargo as fertilizer, the Khian
Sea docked at the Sedren wharf in Gonaives in northwest Haiti.
In January 1988, the crew offloaded some 4,000 tons of the
ash, and left it on a beach adjacent to the decrepit pier.
The dumping caused an uproar almost immediately. One crew
member, confronted by environmentalists from Port au Prince, went
so far as to eat a handful of the ash on camera, saying "here's
what I think of its toxicity," as he munched on his snack.
The authorities were not impressed. The Haitian Commerce Minister
ordered the crew to reload the ash and leave, but the Khian Sea
left in the middle of the night without reloading the ash.
The ash has remained on Haitian shores for 10 years.
All manner of attempts to persuade the Philadelphia and U.S.
authorities to repatriate the ash have failed. Just two weeks
after the dumping, a Greenpeace team returned from Gonaives to
Philadelphia with samples of the ash and called on then-Mayor
Wilson Goode to retrieve the ash. No response. Thousands of petitions
were delivered without effect. The Haiti Communications Project
spearheaded a mailing of little packets of the ash to Philadelphia
to prod the city into action. No response. When the owners of
the Khian Sea were convicted of perjury relating to the voyage
of their vessel (they were never tried for the dumping in Haiti),
Philadelphia officials asked the judge to consider requiring repatriation
of the ash as part of the sentence. The judge gave them jail time
instead. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United Nations
Development Program sent a mission to the site, which recommended
building a permanent containment facility in Haiti for the ash.
No steps were taken to do so. Greenpeace asked the U.S. military
to load the ash on its way home from restoring President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide's government. No reply.
The only change since the original dumping was that a portion
of the ash was moved to an unlined, uncovered, unmarked bunker
a couple miles inland from the beach. A Greenpeace laboratory
analysis of samples showed that heavy metals from the ash had
begun to contaminate adjoining soil. Even the simplest precautions,
such as fencing off the bunker and closing nearby salt drying
fields, have not been taken.
The scandal of the Khian Sea and others like it led to the
negotiation of a landmark international environmental treaty -
the Basel Convention - which prohibits the export of toxic waste
from the industrialized countries to the rest of the world. But
that treaty does not cover past actions, and in any case the United
States has refused to sign It.
Steps have been taken to redress the wrong perpetrated on
Haiti, however, and by a surprising source: the City of New York.
Two years ago, the New York City Trade Waste Commission was
created to rid the city's garbage industry of organized crime
influence. As part of this effort, the Commission scrutinizes
every company which applies for a license to haul New York trash.
In Summer 1997, a company called Eastern Environmental Services,
based in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, applied for the lucrative license.
While vetting the company, Commission lawyer Russell Bixler discovered
that the head of Eastern, Louis Paolino, was also a principal
of ficer of Joseph Paolino and Sons, the company which had subcontracted
to the operator of the Khian Sea for disposal of Philadelphia's
ash. Paolino and Sons also owned Philadelphia's Pier 2, which
burned down mysteriously just as the Khian Sea was about to dock
there on its return from Haiti, and refused to repossess the remaining
10,000 tons of ash, preferring to sue the Khian Sea's owners.
(The 10,000 tons of ash were eventually dumped at sea, according
to testimony of the ship's captain.)
The Commission's study of Eastern was inconclusive; compared
to many other companies in the business it was relatively clean,
but Louis Paolino had a black mark on his past. The Commission
decided to grant Eastern the license, but under two conditions:
that it provide landfill space for the 5,000 tons of material
from Haiti (4,000 tons of ash plus 1,000 tons of contaminated
soil), and $100,000 toward the costs of shipping it to the United
States. These conditions were required under an order signed by
the company, which stands to make millions in the New York trash
However, the Commission's wellintentioned negotiations with
Eastern fell a little short. A feasibility study recently carried
out by Greater Caribbean Dredging, a New Yorkbased company, estimates
that it will cost about $300,000 to excavate, pack and barge the
ash back to the United States, not including transport from the
port in Philadelphia to one of Eastern's landfills in Pennsylvania.
And the clock is ticking on raising the rest of the funds-New
York's agreement with Eastern expires in May.
With that in mind, Greenpeace and several Haitian groups have
launched an emergency campaign to complete Project Return To Sender.
In January, pointing out that $100,000 amounted to only .004
percent of Philadelphia's annual budget, Greenpeace and the Haiti
Communications Project called on Philadelphia's current mayor,
Ed Rendell, to provide assistance.
The city's response was a brush off. Rendell's Chief of Staff
Gregory Rost had given New York City a similar slap in the face
in reply to the Trade Waste Commission's September request for
$50,000. Rost called the $50,000 a "substantial sum"
and said that any contribution made by Philadelphia would have
to be "cost neutral." Privately, New York City officials
are furious with the Philly mayor's response, which wrongly implies
that New York has something to gain from this deal.
The U.S. State Department has responded somewhat more positively
to Greenpeace's request for assistance, saying it has no objections
to the project and asking the U.S. embassy in Port au Prince to
provide advice and logistical assistance. But when it comes to
hard cash, no dice, says a State Department spokesperson.
But the pressure is building. In response to a press conference
held by the Haitian environmental group COHPEDA in January in
Port au Prince, Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fritz Longchamps
committed $50,000 from the Haitian government for the project.
He also instructed law firms representing President Preval and
the Haitian government in the United States to lobby for a successful
The scandal of the Khian Sea spans almost the entire nasty
history of the international trade in toxic wastes. Project Return
To Sender could represent the last chapter.
Kenny Bruno, a contributing writer to Multinational Monitor,
is a campaigner with Greenpeace.