Kicked Around the Pacific, U.S. Military Toxics May End in Canada

By Neville Judd

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, September 7, 2000 (ENS) - A United States shipment of polychlorinated biphenyl waste (PCB) denied entry by Japan, the U.S. and Canada may yet come back to Canada after a meeting in Ottawa last month.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister David Anderson denied knowledge of the meeting.


Environment Minister David Anderson (Photo courtesy Environment Canada)
But U.S. assistant deputy under secretary of defense for environmental quality, Bruce de Grazia confirmed to ENS that Environment Canada did accept a U.S. delegation sent to discuss the possibility of Canada disposing of the shipment.

When asked if Canada had ruled out that possibility, de Grazia said, "I can't speak for another government, but I wouldn't describe the discussions as being like that. We had a very pleasant meeting with them."

PCBs are highly toxic, persistent carcinogenic compounds. They have been used widely as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment.

The Virginia based Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, has a 100 ton shipment of PCBs it needs to get rid of. The material comes from a U.S. military depot in Sagami, Japan and consists of transformers, transformer oil, circuit breakers and other small parts.

The DLA said tests at U.S. military laboratories found the material contains less than 50 parts per million PCBs. By law, PCBs cannot be imported into U.S. customs territory for disposal so the DLA shipment is currently on Wake Island, a three mile strip of land in the central Pacific, 2,460 miles west of Hawaii.

The shipment's route to Wake Island, used by the U.S. Army as a missile launch support facility, was circuitous.


The PCB shipment sits in 23 containers on Wake Island. (Photo courtesy Basel Action Network)
Earlier this year, the shipment was supposed to go to Kirkland Lake, Ontario, via the port of Vancouver, British Columbia. Alabama based Trans Cycle Industries (TCI), prevented by law from handling the waste at its U.S. plants, had set up a Canadian branch plant in the small northern Ontario town.

When TCI failed to obtain an import licence from the Ontario provincial government, the Canadian federal government stepped in to stop the shipment from being unloaded in Vancouver in April. The container ship, named the Wan He, then headed to a temporary storage site in Seattle, where dockworkers and teamsters refused to unload the cargo.

With nowhere else to go, the Wan He returned to Yokohama, Japan, where it docked for a month. Other temporary destinations such as Guam and Johnston Atoll were discussed and dismissed before Wake Island was settled upon in mid-May.

The question of where to go from Wake Island prompted the DLA's August meeting in Ottawa. "We are exploring all our options," de Grazia told ENS. "We haven't rejected any options or made any decisions. We are still in the stages of finding the best, most environmentally sound method of disposing of this waste.

"We did talk to Canada. We had a very pleasant meeting with them in which we didn't decide upon anything. We talked about the difficulties each side had and agreed to go back to our governments with the questions each side had."

De Grazia said no more meetings have been scheduled with Canada and hinted it is not the only country the Defense Logistics Agency has contacted. "We're talking to lots of people, but I'm not going to say one country is favoured more than another," he said.

De Grazia said there is no need to make a hasty decision but admitted that the situation could not drag on. "I hope I'm not discussing this in a year," he said.


Japanese protesters make their feelings known on board the Wan He in Yokohama Harbor last spring. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
A spokeswoman for Environment Canada said she is unaware of the August meeting with the DLA and was unable to find out information about it. But Charles Cormier, head of controls and compliance in Environment Canada's Transboundary Movement Division, said the meeting was routine.

"We regularly hold meetings with companies and governments that want to find out the requirements of our import/export regulations for hazardous waste," said Cormier. "There was no indication that Canada would receive any PCB waste. We don't have a decision to make because they never sent us notification of any export to Canada."

Environmental groups Greenpeace Canada and the Seattle based Basel Action Network (BAN) wrote to Environment Minister David Anderson on August 31, urging him to "condemn the purpose and outcome of this meeting and to categorically reject the import of this proposed waste."

Anderson has yet to reply to them.

"This has been a wakeup call for the U.S. Department of Defense that it can't go sailing this stuff around the world and burning it in small town incinerators," BAN's Jim Puckett told ENS.

"The most appropriate solution for this waste is for it to be processed and destroyed at source utilizing non-combustion technologies now available commercially," said Puckett.

BAN and Greenpeace argue that if it accepted the PCB shipment, Canada would contravene the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.


Trans Cycle Industries' Kirkland Lake plant, the original destination for the PCB shipment. (Photo courtesy Trans Cycle Industries)
Canada is a signatory to the 1989 agreement, which was set up in response to a growing trade in hazardous waste trafficking. The U.S. has not signed the convention.

In July, ENS reported on the 1999 Canadian statistics on transboundary movements of hazardous waste, which showed the amount of hazardous waste imported by Canada from the United States had more than doubled in some provinces in a year.

The figures prompted Minister Anderson to alert his provincial and territorial counterparts and to call for stronger provincial standards for all facilities that accept hazardous waste, including landfills.

"Canada does not want to become a pollution haven," said Anderson. "The continuing rise in imports of hazardous waste is raising questions of safety and responsibility."