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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Toxic traders

Russia is becoming a prime dumping site for some of the world's most deadly industrial waste. A lucrative business is developing here to handle the garbage the West does not want in its own backyard. KALININGRAD, Western Russia -- n A nickel smelter in the southern Russian city of Orsk received a trainload of 1,000 tons of French industrial waste in February that contained thallium, a highly toxic substance used most commonly in rat poison. The load was shipped by an Israeli middleman, but it was sent back in April because the factory can not safely process or store waste containing thallium. n Cans of paint residue from Germany rust away in a storage site in St. Petersburg. The city ordered the material returned to Germany, but the German firm that sent it denies responsibility. The Russian company that accepted the cans has vanished. n In the Ordzhonikidze shipyard in Sevastopol, dockworkers are removing over 230 tons of asbestos from the SS United States, owned by a Turkish company. The asbestos -- the leading known cause of occupational cancer in the world -- will be recycled in Asbest, a factory town in the Urals. n In early 1993 a load of German pulp waste, sent to the Moscow region under the guise of humanitarian aid, went up in smoke in a mysterious fire that caused breathing difficulties and sickness among nearby villagers. Russia's market reforms have brought the country many of the West's most coveted consumer goods. But in the port of Kaliningrad, the plains of the Krasnodar region and in the heart of Moscow, Russians are also finding a darker side to Western capitalism: mountains of waste. Unable to dump their garbage at home, Western factories are hiring middlemen who take on their load for a fee. These middlemen used to dump their wares in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, but as more and more Third World countries closed their doors to Western trash, the toxic traders started looking for other destinations. Russia, where laws are plentiful but frequently ignored, was a convenient alternative. In cities like Kaliningrad and Moscow, Western firms have moved beyond just dumping waste. They offer to build incinerators and recycling plants on credit, but not without a catch; the Russians have to agree to process Western waste as well. Russian authorities, however, say they are closing their doors to Western trash. Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, the ecology minister who is also a member of the State Duma, told The Moscow Times in a recent interview that he planned to submit a ban on all waste imports later this year and predicted it would probably be adopted in early 1995. Earlier attempts to restrict imports of Western waste, by licensing only imports designated for recycling or reuse, had failed to keep out hazardous substances, Danilov-Danilyan said. Many firms managed to avoid the required ecological tests, he added, while others merely used recycling as a pretext for dumping. Greenpeace said it documented 96 attempts between 1987 and 1993 to export 34 million tons of waste from Western Europe to Russia, most under the guise of recycling schemes. About 80 percent of the material was produced in Germany, Greenpeace said. Of the 34 million tons offered, Greenpeace said in a recent report, only 4,000 tons had actually reached Russia by November 1993. But Greenpeace activists say they merely scratched the surface of the problem, reporting only those traders who were caught. Last year, a Dutch trading firm shipped 70 tons of used Duracell batteries from Britain to Latvia and sent it by train to Krasnodar. In a small factory half an hour's drive from the nearest village in the Krasnodar region, the batteries were smelted to obtain mercury. The cases and other battery components were ground into concrete for a local highway. Ravil Kamanayev, who imported the batteries for his Molibden metal trading firm, said in an interview that the plant in Krasnodar was a pilot project for recycling Russian batteries. Mercury is in high demand but Russia's only mercury mine, the plant used by Molibden, can no longer mine profitably, while supplies from neighboring republics have been halted, Kamanayev said. Recycling mercury waste would be much cheaper, but Russia has no such facility. "This problem needs to be solved. You cannot close your eyes to it," said Kamanayev. Kamanayev said that the recycling had been done safely, but a recent incident at a similar plant in South Africa shows the considerable risk of mercury vapor being released during the smelting process. One factory worker died, another fell into a coma and many others fell ill after breathing in mercury vapor. The three directors of the Thor Chemicals factory are in court facing homicide charges. About 90 percent of the waste deals with Russia, documented by Greenpeace, were labeled for recycling or for reuse. "These 'recycling' operations are either little more than a sham pretext for dumping, or can involve a very dirty polluting enterprise in an under-regulated part of the world," Greenpeace charged. For Oganes Targulian, 27, a Greenpeace activist who has tried to publicize the waste trade, the West has no business exporting its trash to Russia, even for recycling. "Russia has lots of its own waste that it can't even process," he said. "What do we need Western waste for?" Greenpeace charged in its report that exporting waste hurts not only the receiving country but the donor as well. "By simply shifting their ecological burden to those who may be desperate enough to accept any type of development, toxic traders perpetuate dirty technologies rather than finding solutions to them," it said. Embarrassed by a wave of waste trade scandals, local officials take pains to show they are cracking down on the toxic trade. Vladimir Litvinenko, the head of the Kaliningrad ecology committee, looked as stern as a schoolmaster when he listed the waste he has managed to keep out of this Russian enclave on the Baltic coast in recent months: metal slags, printing industry waste, used tires, discarded plastic bottles, even sewage sludge. All were labeled "for recycling" or "further use." "We reject such plans off hand," he said. "Recycling should be based exclusively on local materials." Litvenenko also said he turned down a German firm that offered to build a waste incinerator on credit but demanded that the plant burn German waste as well. The port city of Kaliningrad has an open sewer, industrial waste dumps at most of its factories and dozens of radioactive hot spots. The last thing it needs is Western trash, Litvinenko said. But there are some who say that, in their hunt for shady garbage traders, ecologists and bureaucrats have blocked some honest deals as well. Klaus-Reiner Dauert, the general director of German-owned Dr. B--ttner & Partners, which offers consulting to businesses in the Kaliningrad region, tried to send a test load of 1,000 tons of domestic sewage sludge to a local farmers' union, free of charge, to be used as fertilizer. But the import license was blocked by the ecology committee; Litvinenko said a sample of the sludge had been heavily contaminated with laundry detergent, oil and heavy metals. Dauert insisted that pollution levels were acceptable by Western standards. Most Kaliningrad farmers cannot afford real fertilizer and badly need to enrich their depleted fields, he said, adding "I don't even look at it as trash." Dauert accused Kaliningrad ecologists of making only "a superficial analysis, based on the bad experience they have had with other projects." Similarly, Kirsanov, who is German, found middlemen in Germany who offered him 50 Deutsche marks ($29) per ton for their load of used car tires. The deal would have helped him pay for the construction of a 15 million Deutsche mark tire recycling plant, and provided him with free raw material. The deal would have been profitable for everyone, Kirsanov said. Without the plant, he said, "we'll be up to our ears in tires." Kaliningrad lacks recycling facilities for tires, which are a fire hazard when left in waste dumps. But Litvinenko would not let him import Western tires, and Kirsanov has had to shelve the project for lack of investment. However, there is less chance that Russia will end a very different waste trade, one that has gone on for decades. In this case the waste trader is the government. In early April, Russia signed an agreement with Hungary to store spent nuclear fuel from a Hungarian power plant. Russia also accepts nuclear waste from Finland, the Czech and Slovak republics, and Bulgaria. Viktor Sidorenko, the deputy nuclear power minister, defended the trade earlier this year when he said that the plants were built by the Soviet Union. Under contract, Russia was obliged to accept the spent nuclear rods, he said. Contradicting his colleague, however, Danilov-Danilyan said that the contracts only obliged Russia to process nuclear fuel, not to store it on Russian soil. Importing radioactive waste is banned under Russia's law on protection of the environment, he said. Siding with Danilov-Danilyan, the State Duma in April issued a statement of protest against the agreement with Hungary. Ecologists have also urged the West, notably Western Europe, to keep its factories from dumping waste abroad. The European Community now bans waste exports to many Third World nations, but not to Russia. Yvonne Slingenberg, the assistant administrator of the Waste Management Unit of the European Commission, said that the EC would ban exports of hazardous and semi-hazardous waste to Russia on May 6. But non-hazardous waste would not be covered by the new rules, Slingenberg said. "Under the guise of recycling export of waste can still take place," she said.