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Environmental Case Study Voyage of the Khian Sea, Wandering Garbage Barge: What a Long, Strange Trip It Has

Been
On August 31, 1986, the cargo ship Khian Sea loaded 14,000 tons (28 million pounds) of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia and set off on an odyssey that symbolizes a predicament we all share: what to do with our refuse. Starting in the 1970s, Philadelphia burned most of its municipal garbage and sent the resulting incinerator ash to a landfill in New Jersey. In 1984, when New Jersey learned that the ash contained enough arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin, and other toxins to be classified as hazardous waste, it refused to accept any more. When six other states also rejected incinerator ash shipments, Philadelphia was in a predicament. What would they do with 180,000 tons of the stuff every year? The answer was to send it offshore to countries with less stringent environmental standards. A local contractor offered to transport it to the Caribbean. The Khian Sea was to be the first of those shipments. When the Khian Sea tried to unload its cargo in the Bahamas, however, it was turned away. Over the next 14 months, the ship also was refused entry by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau (in West Africa), and the Netherlands Antilles. Finally in late, 1987, the Haitian government issued a permit for "fertilizer" import, and the crew dumped 4000 tons of ash on the beach near the city of Gonaives. Alerted by the environmental group, Greenpeace, that the ash wasn't really fertilizer, Haitian officials canceled the permit and ordered everything returned to the ship, but the Khian Sea slipped away in the night, leaving behind a large pile of loose ash. Some of the waste has been moved inland and buried, but much of it remains on the beach, slowly being scattered by the wind and washed into the sea. After it left Haiti, the Khian Sea visited Senegal, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore looking for a place to dump its toxic load. As it wandered the oceans looking for a port, the ship changed its name from Khian Sea to Felicia to Pelacano. Its registration was transferred from Liberia to the Bahamas to Honduras in an attempt to hide its true identity, but nobody wanted it or its contents. Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, it seemed cursed to roam the oceans forever. Two years, three names, four continents, and 11 countries later, the troublesome cargo was still on board. Then, somewhere in the Indian Ocean between Singapore and Sri Lanka all the ash disappeared. When questioned about this, the crew had no comment except that it was all gone. Everyone assumes, of course, that once out of sight of the land, it was just dumped overboard. If this were just an isolated incident, perhaps it wouldn't matter much. However, some 3 million tons of hazardous and toxic waste goes to sea every year looking for a dumping site. A 1998 report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission listed the United States as a major exporter of toxic waste. In 1989-at least in part due to the misadventures of the Khian Sea-33 countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed to limit international shipment of toxic waste, especially from the richer countries of the world to the poorer ones. Eventually 118 countries-not including the United States-ratified the Basel Convention. In 1995, the United States announced it would ratify the Convention but reserved the right to ship "recyclable" materials to whomever will take them. Since almost everything potentially can be recycled into something, that hardly puts any limits at all on what we send offshore. The latest development in the saga of the Khian Sea, is that Haiti has asked Philadelphia to help pay for cleanup of the ash still sitting on the beach. Eastern Environmental Services, one of whose principal owners was responsible for dumping the load in Haiti 12 years ago, has agreed to retrieve what's left and bury it in a landfill in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's share would be $200,000, or about onethird of the total cleanup cost. The city of brotherly love in spite of having a $130 million budget surplus last year, claims it can't afford to help out. Is this a case of environmental racism, or simply a matter of being fiscally responsible?

Copyright The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Permission required for reproduction or display.

Environmental Case Study Voyage of the Khian Sea, Wandering Garbage Barge: What a Long, Strange Trip It Has Been
Although most of us don't have as big or world-famous a problem as Philadelphia, all of us contribute to some degree to related problems. We all generate vast amounts of unwanted stuff every year. Places to put our trash are becoming more and more scarce as the contents have become increasingly unpleasant and dangerous. We don't want it in our backyards, so it often ends up in those of the poorest and least powerful, both in this country and around the world. In this chapter, we will look at the kinds of waste we produce, who makes them, what problems their disposal cause, as well as how we might reduce our waste production and dispose of it in more environmentally friendly ways.

Copyright The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Permission required for reproduction or display.