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U.S. Military Playing "Hide And Seek" With Toxic Waste, Say Activists

by Danielle Knight

Plan to "temporarily" store on tiny Wake Island
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Environmental groups are condemning plans to store a shipment of U.S. military toxic waste at a tiny Pacific atoll called Wake Island, arguing that the island is not equipped to store hazardous chemicals and safer disposal alternatives are available.

The waste, containing cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, originated from U.S. military bases in Japan. Since it left Yokohama Harbour in March, it has been a trans-Pacific "hot potato" rejected from various shipping ports.

The cargo has been refused entry in Canada and the United States, and was returned to Japan in April. Since then, Guam and Johnston Atoll have also refused requests to store the waste, as a result of protests by international environmental activists.

"Playing this global game of hide and seek with this waste is unacceptable, particularly when a viable, safe on-site destruction technology is well in hand," says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a group named after the international treaty seeking to ban toxic shipments of hazardous waste.

Dockworkers in Seattle had refused to unload the cargo and U.S. environmentalists threatened a lawsuit because U.S. law, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, prohibits imports of PCBs that were manufactured abroad.

So even though the waste was produced by the U.S. military, since it was made on Japanese soil the waste cannot be legally imported. The shipment consists of 14 containers of surplus electrical transformers, circuit breakers and other electrical equipment.

"The U.S. Department has made a mess of trying to secretly dispose of this waste"
For the past several months the Pentagon has been trying to unload the waste from its site in Japan.

"The waste PCB to be shipped from Japan resulted from ongoing efforts by U.S. military forces to make its installations PCB-free, worldwide," says a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

The Pentagon and the Canadian disposal contractor, Trans-Cycle Industries, insist that the PCB content in the shipment is very low and no more dangerous than equipment routinely handled by disposal crews.

The statement says the waste was stored safely in Japan and scheduled to leave Yokohama Harbour for storage on Wake Island by May 18. The Japanese government had imposed a 30-day deadline for the removal of the waste when it returned in April

But environmentalists argue that Wake Island, a tiny atoll north of the Marshall Islands, is in the path of numerous typhoons and has an average elevation only three meters above sea level.

While the location is seen as a "temporary" solution, Puckett argues that it may end up staying on Wake Island -- despite that it does not have long-term hazardous waste storage facilities -- because it is the "path of least political resistance."

Environmentalists say the shipment waste would likely qualify as hazardous waste under the international Basel Convention on hazardous waste due to its likelihood of containing dioxins, furans and chlorobenzene.

Matt Ruchel, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace, says he fears the cargo will eventually be incinerated, the status-quo method of dealing with this type of hazardous waste which has been dubbed "ship and burn."

When burned, PCBs create toxic dioxins and furans. These compounds are part of the so-called "dirty dozen" chemicals which have been targeted for global phase-out under a new United Nations treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Ruchel and Puckett note that a mobile technology that does not produce the hazardous by-products of waste incineration is commercially available from the Canadian company Eco-Logic.

Such technologies are currently being used to clean up hazardous wastes dumped at the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics at Homebush Bay in Sydney, Australia, where environmentalists strongly pressured against incineration.

In late April, four activists organized by Greenpeace boarded the ship and demanded the U.S. military develop an environmentally safe plan for the waste's disposal.

"The U.S. Department has made a mess of trying to secretly dispose of this waste," says Ruchel.

His colleague, Sanae Shida, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, adds that unless the two governments commit to environmentally sound treatment of this waste, "the PCB ping-pong game will not be resolved."

Puckett says he hopes the U.S. military steers away from only looking for a quick solution and instead sets a precedent for using ecologically sound waste disposal options and minimizing the production of hazardous waste.

"It's not just about these 14 containers," says Puckett. "Rather than exporting and importing toxic wastes, we should, whenever possible be exporting and importing appropriate, safe, waste minimization and destruction technologies."

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Albion Monitor May 15, 2000 (

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