Bill Moyers investigates America’s shadowy new industry – the international export of toxic waste – revealing how shipping deadly wastes to third-world countries has become an enormous business in the United States.
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight, a Frontline Special Report on America’s toxic trade.
BILL MOYERS: How much waste is traveling south? Well, it’s hard to say.
ANNOUNCER: Journalist Bill Moyers reveals America’s dirty secret. Hazardous export to the Third World.
BILL MOYERS: Hazardous waste is on the move, crossing oceans and international borders, turning the earth into a Global Dumping Ground.
[voice-over] The Khian Sea, a toxic Flying Dutchman, is wandering the Caribbean.
SHIP CAPTAIN: Right now, I am in the Caribbean waiting for orders, I don’t know what will be my final destination.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The captain is looking for a place to dump 13,000 tons of incinerator ash. His cargo is the by-product of Philadelphia’s municipal garbage and it’s laced with lead, chromium, and other toxic heavy metals. In February of 1988, the Khian Sea leaves Philadelphia bound for the Bahamas. Denied entry, the ship sails on to Bermuda, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Panama and finally docks in Haiti. When the crew begins off-loading some of the ash, a representative of the owners tries to demonstrate that the ship’s cargo is harmless.
CREW MEMBER: This is how worried I am of its toxicity.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Haitian officials are not impressed. They order the ship to weigh anchor. And it does-leaving behind 3,000 tons of ash. The Khian Sea heads back toward Philadelphia, then turns east sailing across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. After 18 months at sea, the ship is sighted at anchor off Singapore, its hold empty.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] The odyssey of the Khian Sea focused the world’s attention on a new global threat, the international traffic in hazardous waste. Much of that waste comes from us, the United States. We generate 500 million tons of hazardous and toxic waste every year, ten times more than any other nation. It’s a growing business and it’s reaping millions of dollars in profits. In this program, the result of two years of research by the Center for Investigative Reporting, we’ll follow a toxic trail around the globe. Much of that trade is legal, but not all by any means. Case in point: a discovery in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe involving the shipment of these barrels that led investigators to this warehouse in Mount Vernon, New York.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It was a classic con game, a multi-million dollar scam with a toxic twist. The con men -these two brothers Jack and Charles Colbert -are now in federal prison. There they talked with my colleague, producer Lowell Bergman.
CHARLES COLBERT:We’re basically pioneers in the, not the recycling, but in the surplus chemical business. We were in a sense innovators ahead of the times because what you had was a whole definition in the environmental area that isn’t really defined yet. And we were the victims of that.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The business created by Jack Colbert and his brother Charles -a law school graduate -involved 100 countries mostly in the Third World and it made the brothers very rich, generating over 180 million dollars in sales.
CHARLES COLBERT:We did between eight and ten million dollars a year for fifteen years. And some years we did as much as fifteen or twenty million dollars.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Colberts discovered that they could take barrels of chemicals banned by the U.S. government for sale in this country -or classified as hazardous waste here in the U.S.-and then turn around and sell them overseas for a profit. Charlie Colbert remembers their first deal.
CHARLES COLBERT:-because somebody called me up and gave me five truckloads of material on a— from a military base, and we ended up selling it for eighty thousand dollars, that’s why we were in the surplus chemical business. And that’s why it was symbiotic for both us and the society.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Symbiotic for us and the society. What do you mean?
CHARLES COLBERT:It was beneficial to us because we found the way to be, be competitive and it was beneficial for the society because, we were helping solve a problem. Instead of chemicals going in the ground and costing a lot of money for disposal, they were being reused a second time, you know, and most of the chemicals.
JACK COLBERT:They were not being reused a second time, they were being used -they had never been used the first time -that was the whole thing. I mean if material isn’t used, ok, it’s virgin material still in the drum, why bury a drum of good product?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But what Jack Colbert calls good product the Justice Department calls toxic waste.
JAMES DEVITA: The Colbert brothers were to toxic waste what the James brothers were to bank robbery … they were the best known, at least among the people who enforce the environmental laws in this country, violators of those laws.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] James Devita, a former Assistant United States Attorney, prosecuted the Colbert brothers case. He says the Colberts’ catalogue of products came from corporations that did not want to pay the high cost of disposing of their surplus chemicals, chemicals that would otherwise be classified as toxic waste.
BILL MOYERS: So they bought toxic waste at a discount.
Mr. DEVITA: Or got it for free in many instances.
BILL MOYERS: Just to get rid of it.
Mr. DEVITA: Yeuh.
BILL MOYERS: And then they sold it at a profit.
Mr. DEVITA: Exactly.
LOWELL BERGMAN: I mean look at this, weren’t you looking at a loophole?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over} In fact the Colbert Brothers advertised for chemicals that, quote, “were no longer approved by the EPA” in the United States.
JACK COLBERT:There is a lot of products that were not approved by the EPA, that are still in use in the entire world. Now you’re gonna come out and-you’re gonna say that our EPA knows better than 165 other countries in the world, is that what you are saying?
LOWELL BERGMAN: So you don’t feel any moral responsibility, whether or not it was illegal, for shipping these chemicals overseas?
JACK COLBERT:You are asking me a question, am I sorry that I sold chemicals to the Third World? No. Let me ask you a question, OK, all right, so now you have 2,000 tons of pesticide that’s been produced in America, OK, still on sale in the rest of the world. Now what do you want it to do? Do you want it to be buried in America or do you want it to be sold in a Third World country, which would you prefer?
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] And the supply available to the Colberts of old, banned and unwanted chemicals that would have to be buried here as expensive hazardous waste had no limit. After all, who would pay to dispose of banned pesticides like DDT when someone was willing, legally, to take them off your hands? The list of suppliers to the Colberts included state agencies, the federal government, including the Pentagon, and-
JACK COLBERT:-Ford Motor, Exxon, General Motors, aside from the government, most of the major corporations, Dupont
CHARLES COLBERT:-ICI, Ceylanese-
JACK COLBERT:-they all sold us material.
CHARLES COLBERT:Con Edison in New York, Detroit Edison, you know.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jack Colbert says he was just a middleman providing a service to corporate America.
JACK COLBERT:What I’ve done is marketing. See, Dupont and a lot of these companies could have sold the material overseas themselves. But the thing is they’re not set up with the marketing for it.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But it was the Colberts’ marketing practices that proved to be their downfall. The Colberts would advertise worldwide and, in response to orders paid for in advance, ship what they claimed were pure chemicals at bargain basement prices.
It was this order from the southern African nation of Zimbabwe that would send them to prison. The order was for 53 thousand dollars in dry cleaning fluid and solvents. But the federal government would prove that the Colberts knowingly shipped not dry cleaning fluid but these drums instead, filled with a toxic waste.
The Colberts say that they themselves were defrauded by one of their regular suppliers, this now defunct waste disposal company in Cleveland, Ohio, with its own history of fines and fires.
JACK COLBERT:I mean I paid Alchemtron different prices for different drums and no matter what I paid Alchemtron I got the same thing, I got garbage.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] What they call “garbage” was really toxic waste, and cost the Colberts 60 cents per gallon. They turned around and charged two dollars and sixty cents per gallon to the customer in Zimbabwe. What the Colberts did not know was that the company in Zimbabwe got the U.S. dollars to pay for the chemicals, from a U.S. Foreign Aid program, taxpayer money.
AL ROSSI: There’s an emblem on the barrel that says poison the other emblem, uh, ironically is the AID emblem which we uh, place on commodities that are financed by, by the U.S. government.
BILL MOYERS: And what does it say? Hands clasp? United States of America. [voice-over] It was this symbol that would result in Al Rossi, who works for the Inspector General’s office of the Agency for International Development, being assigned to investigate when the customer in Zimbabwe complained. The Colbert chemicals turned out to be two hundred barrels of poison.
AL ROSSI: And as you can see in the photograph the barrel appears to
have been eaten out from the inside. That’s to say, that the material, in addition to being toxic, was very corrosive. This, a recycled chlorine and solvent mixture.
BILL MOYERS: Toxic?
AL ROSSI: Toxic.
BILL MOYERS: Hazardous?
AL ROSSI: Hazardous.
BILL MOYERS: Dangerous?
AL ROSSI: Dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Rossi tracked the shipment of toxic, corrosive chemical waste that arrived in Zimbabwe back to New York to Jack and Charles Colbert-who were doing hazardous business here as well as overseas. Rossi would soon learn he wasn’t the only one on the Colbert brothers trail.
AL ROSSI: In effect they were on a lot of most wanted lists.
AL ROSSI: The environmental agencies in the northeast corridor both state and federal had either investigations or open files on the Colberts. And, uh, their concern was how do we stop these people? How do we get them off the streets?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The trail from Zimbabwe led Rossi to this warehouse just north of New York City: the Colbert brothers head
quarters. Here he discovered why the Colberts’ business had attracted so much attention.
AL ROSSI: They would acquire this material, they would store it in a warehouse. They would attempt to sell off whatever they could, from what they acquired, and what was left over they would leave in the warehouse and they would abandon the warehouse.
BILL MOYERS: Leaving the toxic waste in the warehouse?
AL ROSSI: Leaving the toxic waste material in the abandoned warehouse.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Colberts’ warehouses of abandoned waste had become a clear and present danger to local authorities. Henry Campbell is a fire chief in the town of Mt. Vernon, where the Colberts had set up shop.
HENRY CAMPBELL: I believe it was May of ’84, they had a spill outside, a chemical spill that uh, of a pesticide, an insecticide that ran down into the sewer.
BILL MOYERS: How many of your men were hospitalized?
CAMPBELL: Thirty-one police and fire officers.
BILL MOYERS: Thirty-one?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Colberts stored chemicals in 80 warehouses from Texas to the Canadian border. After one fire in this warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, authorities found explosive materials, materials they had to get rid of themselves.
CHARLES COLBERT:We never had a fire. We never had a chemical accident.
JACK COLBERT:There was only one fire.
CHARLES COLBERT:And there were no tests that showed that any material was anything but virgin material out of all the accusations.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Accusations against the Colberts expanded to include arms dealing as well as a slew of civil complaints from customers in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
JACK COLBERT:Everybody was happy, people weren’t complaining. The paint was paint, the solvents were solvents, uh, the cans…
LOWELL BERGMAN: What about India?
JACK COLBERT:India? In India, we had nothing to do with it, as a matter of fact.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Somebody in Zimbabwe wasn’t happy.
JACK COLBERT:All right, well Zimbabwe of course I don’t know what happened. I never knew the material was the wrong stuff, I would have never shipped it.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In 1986, the Colberts were brought to trial after Al Rossi’s investigation of their shipment to Zimbabwe. They were convicted of 27 counts of mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice.
AL ROSSI: In July of ’86 they were sentenced. They were sentenced, each brother was, sentence to serve thirteen years. They were remanded that day and taken directly to prison.
BILL MOYERS: If the federal government had not been involved, if taxpayer dollars had not been used in Zimbabwe, do you think it’s conceivable they would have gotten away with this?
AL ROSSI: Yes, I do.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In fact, the conviction of the Colberts was the exception rather than the rule. The prosecutors, to get the Colberts off the streets, had to use the mail fraud statutes, not environmental law. To date just the clean-up of the Colbert brothers’ warehouses has cost U.S. taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. And that hazardous waste they shipped to Zimbabwe. No one is sure whether it simply evaporated or was dumped. One thing is certain, Zimbabwe has no facility for handling toxic waste.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] It’s not just con-men like the Colberts who are shipping harmful waste overseas. The legal export of waste is approved, even encouraged by our government. In fact, there is very little control. If you want to ship hazardous waste overseas, you simply have to contact an official at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington named Wendy Grieder.
WENDY GRIEDER: Under our regulations, exporters of hazardous waste who propose to make international shipments must notify the EPA, uh, in advance of those shipments-EPA then takes that information and sends it to the government of the receiving country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Grieder’s concern is that if the receiving country agrees to accept the shipment of the hazardous waste, she can do nothing to stop it.
WENDY GRIEDER: I get calls all of the time from allover the country with people interested in sending toxic waste, garbage, municipal incinerator ash and now uranium contaminated soil-We had a proposal to send millions and millions of drums of all kinds of stuff – creosote, solvents, paint waste, pesticides, contaminated oil -to the Congo for disposal. We made our notification, uh, obviously with some concern, but we, we’re obligated to do it. The Congo came back and said yes. And we had to issue a consent to the exporter.
BILL MOYERS: You did not have the authority to say no, even though you had doubts about-
WENDY GRIEDER: That’s right-
BILL MOYERS: The sending of this stuff.
WENDY GRIEDER: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: You had to say yes.
WENDY GRIEDER: We had to say yes. Fortunately, this is a plan that someone made an independent decision about in the Congo, never telling the president. When the president heard of it, he immediately called the whole thing off.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Wendy Grieder can only regulate what is defined as hazardous waste by this law, the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. Donald Clay, an assistant administrator at the EPA, is in charge of defining hazardous waste under that law.
DONALD CLAY: RCRA is a regulatory coo-coo land of definition.
BILL MOYERS: By RCRA you mean?
DONALD CLAY: Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, which is our basic hazardous-waste statute in the United States. It is very complex. We believe that we have five people in the agency who understand what a hazardous waste is … what’s hazardous one year isn’t hazardous it wasn’t hazardous yesterday. It’s hazardous tomorrow because we’ve changed the rule. And so we’ve now added more expansion. Some rules have to be adopted by states before they’re hazardous. You have a waste that in one state, it’s hazardous in when it moves to another state it’s not hazardous because they haven’t adopted a rule yet. It’s a legal statutory framework rather than a logical based on concentration and threat type of thing.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The law Donald Clay says is so illogical exempts from regulation some very hazardous waste, like used lead acid batteries. Over 70 million batteries like the one under the hood of your car are discarded in the United States every year. In this country they are considered dangerous, so the U.S. has a sophisticated system for gathering and then recycling them. The acid and lead in the batteries are toxic, hazardous and corrosive. In fact, lead is considered the number one toxic threat to children by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But under EPA rules, if the battery is not broken, it is not classified as hazardous waste. So when the world demand for lead goes up, when money can be made, millions of lead acid batteries leave the country unregulated and no one is notified or warned. They wind up in recycling plants in Canada and Mexico and Brazil, and they go west to Asia, to South Korea, India, mainland China. Millions of lead acid batteries wind up on the island nation of Taiwan.
Jammed with 20 million people, Taiwan has sustained massive economic growth with the help of cheap labor and no environmental regulation. The boom has made its mammoth port the third largest container facility in the world. And it was here that we found shipments of batteries arriving from the United States. Most of these batteries are sent nearby to the largest lead smelter in Asia.
MICHAEL RABINOWITZ: Inside a battery, there’s acid, lead metal and lead oxide and this, a, red material you see is lead oxide.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Dangerous?
MICHAEL RABINOWITZ: Ah, you wouldn’t want to eat it off the floor here, no no.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Michael Rabinowitz, a geochemist from the Harvard Medical School, is a leading authority on the toxic effects of lead. Dr. Rabinowitz was in Taiwan trying to determine an international standard for lead levels in human beings.
MICHAEL RABINOWITZ: In the case of workers, you can have a, nerve damage, usually peripheral nerve damage, also kidney damage, high blood pressure, gout, nephritis, a leaking of the kidneys so protein and sugar appears in the urine. Some workers, depending on what else they’re exposed to, will develop kidney cancers.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Rabinowitz says the workers have lead levels that put them at high risk for developing nerve problems as well. The result of conditions that would not be allowed in the United States. Lead’s toxic effects are most noticeable in the behavior and learning ability of young children. At this school downwind from that lead smelter, Dr. Rabinowitz found dangerous levels of lead in these children.
MICHAEL RABINOWITZ: Children who live near the smelter up in northern Taiwan. It’s interesting, these children seem to have lower IQs according to how much lead they’re exposed to.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The children Dr. Rabinowitz is talking about used to attend kindergarten here…at what was a preschool. It was evacuated. This was the source of the children’s contamination, the Acme Battery Recycling Plant, which imports lead acid batteries from the United States. The contamination was not limited to the children.
DR. JUNG-DER WANG: Out of 64 workers, who came to our examinations, totally 31 who uh, can be make a diagnosis of lead poisoning.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Jung-Der Wang is one of three occupational safety and health doctors practicing in Taiwan; it was his investigation that exposed and documented the health threat posed by the battery plant to the workers and children.
JUNG-DER WANG: This plant is producing damage to both workers and also the community people … to the workers very severe; to the community people, depends on your opinion. I consider IQ is one of the most important thing. We, uh, lack of resources other than people. We have to take care of our people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In February of 1990 Dr. Wang released his report on the poisoning of the workers and children. There was an outcry in Taiwan. The Acme Plant closed, reopened, and closed again when we came for a visit. And these two local residents told us that when the plant was running it didn’t just devastate people.
TWO OLD MEN: There is a bad smell here. The water is not good all the plants are dying. And the vegetables do not grow. The businessmen are greedy. They only want to make money. They do not care.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In 1989, a Blue Ribbon Commission predicted that if Taiwan continues to ravage its environment it will be uninhabitable by the year 2000. For many, the polluted future is now.
Dr. EUGENE CHIEN: Whole schools, yes, whole classes. In some area, because they burn the scrap metal, in some school, the student, he will use as mask in the daytime, in the classroom, it cause too much problem for them.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Eugene Chien is head of Taiwan’s new Environmental Protection Agency. He says that an especially noxious form of air pollution has developed in his country. It’s been traced to this industry: the processing of tons of scrap, of non-ferrous metal garbage. Seventy percent of this scrap junk comes from the United States where it is not classified as hazardous. “This,” says Dr. Chien, “is recycling at its worst.”
EUGENE CHIEN: Definitely the scrap metal business is no good for our country’s health. For the people, because it cause so much problem in the air pollution, water pollution and its very serious damage to our, uh, rivers.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This is Dr. Chien’s primary target: the scrap processing zone. Processing this waste is a form of mining for metals from aluminum to gold. It’s an industry made hazardous by of the way it handles the waste: burning the insulation around cable to get to the copper wire, putting dioxins and other poisons into the air. It’s an industry that thrives on the absence of environmental controls.
JOSEPH CHEN: Taiwan got no natural resources, no pure metals, no copper, no aluminum.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Born in Taiwan, Joseph Chen is a naturalized U.S. citizen … and until recently the biggest supplier of what is known as “breakage,” non-ferrous scrap from the U.S. to Taiwan’s processing zones.
JOSEPH CHEN: People call me the king of scrap metals from the Far East.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Despite the new EPA in Taiwan, Joe Chen says, a variety of hazardous materials is still entering the country here at the processing zone, everything from PCBs to asbestos.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So this is, uh like a gray plates here, if this would be in the United States, what would this be called?
JOSEPH CHEN: Hazardous waste. Not only that you need a special license to haul this too. And you gotta pay to dump them.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A large part of this waste is computer scrap-crushed computers, computers from manufacturers in the United States like IBM and Hewlett Packard. They’ve acknowledged that they were shipping here through people like Joe Chen to avoid the high cost of disposal back home.
JACK COLBERT:The company in the United States is supposed to pay the money and dispose them. Instead of spending money to dispose them, they sell to Taiwan and make their profit.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So they don’t have to worry about it anymore?
LOWELL BERGMAN: What was a drain on their money becomes profitable.
JACK COLBERT:Yes … yes, you are right.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Joe Chen says he understands the government’s new concern with the environment. And that his lucrative business in Taiwan is coming to an end.
JOSEPH CHEN: The government want to stop this, I think they have some reason to.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So you understand why they are doing this?
JOSEPH CHEN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But what Joe Chen understands is not, according to Dr. Chien, understood in Washington.
EUGENE CHIEN: Because our country raise the issue that we stop the import of haz… scrap metal to Taiwan. And, uh, to our surprise, you know, the U.S. government, they said because of free trade, each country must accept the other country’s export.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So, the U.S. government wants to pressure you.
EUGENE CHIEN: Yep.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What word would you use?
EUGENE CHIEN: To open, uh, the door for the scrap metal into this country.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Even though you are telling them it is causing health problems here.
EUGENE CHIEN: Yep, and, uh, after some negotiation later, we, we have frankly said no. We cannot accept more scrap metal to this country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The United States government’s decision to
exempt batteries and non-ferrous scrap from controls, to keep them off the hazardous-waste list, was apparently motivated by both politics and profit.
WENDY GRIEDER: “When we were drafting our legislation, we were not going to, we were not going to exempt it, and the Bureau of Mines came in and said you can’t do this. We’ve got tons and tons, thousands of tons of scrap metal with economic value going to, and they rattled off, you know, twenty or thirty countries.
BILL MOYERS: And what happened?
WENDY GRIEDER: We exempted scrap metals.
BILL MOYERS: They won, you lost.
WENDY GRIEDER: Well, OMB won.
BILL MOYERS: The President’s budget bureau.
WENDY GRIEDER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: They took the position you should send it.
WENDY GRIEDER: Yes, and the Commerce Department. And the USTR trade representative and the Council on Economics advisors.
BILL MOYERS: So Dr. Chien in Taiwan was right. The government is urging scrap metal be bought as-
WENDY GRIEDER: Well, uh, let’s say I don’t know that we’re urging, but we’re not hindering.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Administration’s policy of free trade in waste is defended by Wendy Grieder’s bosses at the EPA. But isn’t this a case where it’s best to be safe than sorry. That we shouldn’t take any chances with this stuff?
DONALD CLAY: Well, yes, to some degree, and we have erred to tend on the side of public safety, but on the other hand, we have to compete in international markets and it doesn’t do us any good to be over controlling waste that’s not really a problem to more to make sure. It would be nice if we just control had the right amount of control.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t make me feel like we’re on this problem.
EUGENE CHIEN: Well, I think we are. We’re making progress perhaps some of my own frustration is coming through of trying to define hazardous waste, but it is very difficult. What’s recycling? How do you know when something’s recycling and when it’s not recycling?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Because Taiwan’s EPA has cracked down, Joe Chen has stopped shipping scrap to Taiwan from this yard in San Jose, California. But every day all over the U.S., thousands of tons of scrap like this are piling up. If it is not exported, it has to be dumped here in the U.S., and that costs money.
JOSEPH CHEN: …when you dump stuff in a dumping place, you have to pay them, (laughs), you got to pay, you got to pay. So people are talking about Malaysia, or Singapore, or Pakistan, or India, or Philippines, and I think the best place right now is in China.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Most of Chen’s scrap is shipped from San Francisco. The broken left-over and obsolete technology of the First World bound by sea for a dumpsite in the Third World. Joe Chen’s new processing operation is in the People’s Republic of China, in the countryside in Guangdong Province. The scrap is trucked through farmland to Chen’s processing yard.
JOSEPH CHEN: …I’m one of the pioneers. I think I am the biggest processor in China, regarding the scrap metals. I set up this yard here, mainly it’s because very low cost labor, less than two dollars a day. And you can see that they work is as hard as anybody else in the world.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And you’ve had how many containers come in so far?
JOSEPH CHEN: So far, we’ve had 110 containers in 39 days.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] According to Chen and officials of the People’s Republic of China who talked to us, the Chinese government desperate for foreign exchange, hard currency-charges fifty U.S. dollars for every ton dumped here. In return, they supply the workers and facility. Joe Chen makes money by selling the reclaimed metal, like aluminum, on the world market.
JOSEPH CHEN: We, uh, request to ship all the finishing product out of this country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Joe Chen is candid about the lack of environmental restrictions and regulations in communist China.
JOSEPH CHEN: I got a feeling the government is only care about, the fund, the money and uh, they, I don’t think they realize the problem yet. No.
LOWELL BERGMAN: This one says back here, it says toxic material on it?
JOSEPH CHEN: Right, you know.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Is it cadmium or something?
JOSEPH CHEN: Right, this kind of material we have, we put them all together in the drum and we bury in our ditch over there.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So let me see. Show us the ditch.
JOSEPH CHEN: Yeah, OK.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Joe Chen insists that despite the indifference of the Chinese communist government, he is trying to be environmentally responsible.
JOSEPH CHEN: You cannot, I don’t think you can see much, uh, many houses around OK. So, I think, I can make the best use of this area. Now you can see from there, all the way around, back there. We are going to use this as a Tung Tai garbage dumping place. By the time we bury all this, bury all our waste and garbage, up to the level, maybe three years later.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] After our visit in April 1990, Joe Chen opened two more processing yards in China. And other agencies of the government of China are actively soliciting waste of all kinds from the United States.
[on camera] On the face of it, what’s wrong with our shipping waste to Third World countries willing to take it? In Asia alone, our research turned up shipments to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. But the question, it would seem, is whether we bear any responsibility for the environmental effects of our waste on their citizens, especially when we know that their countries have neither the technology nor the money to dispose of the hazardous materials properly. The place we confronted that question most vividly was right next door in Mexico. On the U.S. Mexican border there are nearly 2,000 factories called maquiladoras, manufacturing electronic components, recycling lead-acid batteries from the United States.
BILL MOYERS: They come here for cheap labor and in part because the environmental regulations in Mexico are so poorly enforced. Most of the companies are American or Japanese and they’re supposed to dispose of the hazardous waste they create by shipping them back across the border, some do but many don’t.
ROBERTO SANCHEZ: There are only a, records from around five or eight maquiladoras in Tijuana shipping back their waste it could be more than that. The problem is that EPA, Customs, U.S. Customs or Mexican Customs and SEDUE they don’t have records or they don’t have control on what is actually coming across the border, legally or illegally. It could be that some maquiladoras.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Roberto Sanchez, who teaches at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, is an expert in hazardous-waste disposal and the maquiladoras. This is waste from those maquiladoras being returned to the United States. Sanchez says it’s but a small fraction of what is produced by the foreign factories.
ROBERTO SANCHEZ: If they are not dumping it legally, if they are not recycling it legally, if they are not shipping it back to the United States as law obliges them to do it, our big question is, where is the waste?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Part of the answer, Sanchez says, is that hazardous waste winds up here in the Tijuana Municipal Dump and in the antiquated and overflowing sewer system. Testing all along the border has turned up evidence that hazardous waste is being disposed of inside Mexico threatening the water supply; the health of its people, evidence that toxics are being poured down the drain.
BILL MOYERS: What goes in that drain comes out here. It’s some of the water from the factories and it’s laden with heavy metals and toxics that move down this hill into the well water of a working-class neighborhood in Tijuana.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Well water is the only all-purpose water supply for many of the people who live in the area. Juan Lopez is the owner of this well.
JUAN LOPEZ: Sometimes the water comes out black, sometimes yellow and it looks like paint.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Local residents say that their children suffer from that water. And this, another stream of waste water from those factories, flows down the hill through the streets and past the local
WOMAN FROM COMMUNITY: Well, in the skin they get some, like, costas.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Sores?
WOMAN: Yeah, and the, umh, dogs in the water and the hair take it off, you know, and I think it’s a big problem.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Juan Sanchez Leon works in the local clinic.
ROBERTO SANCHEZ: The water that comes down from the factories is one of the main causes of sickness here it’s a source of contamination
which creates many illnesses.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The water pollution is compounded by the lack of plumbing here; and the residents use discarded chemical containers to store their wash water, barrels from the maquiladora factories, barrels that originally contained toxic chemicals trucked in from the United States.
We went back up the hill to the factories in search of the source of contamination, and here where the sewer overflows we found this American-owned maquiladora. A battery-recycling operation that imports from the United States. Senor Reinaldo Kuhn is the manager of the facility. Senor –
REINALDO KAHN:And the acid and the things that are beside your building, that has nothing to do with-
REINALDO KAHN: We don’t have any acid here.
LOWELL BERGMAN: No sulfuric acid in the batteries?
REINALDO KAHN: -it’s all recycled. It’s coming to stainless steel tanks and is, uh, sold back to battery manufactures. Plastic is recycled, lead is recycled.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Then how does all this stuff get in the river here?
REINALDO KAHN: That’s what they’re trying to find out-
LOWELL BERGMAN: Not you?
REINALDO KAHN: Not me-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Although he denied complicity, Reinaldo Kuhn confirmed that people in the village were getting sick from the waste water flowing down the hill. The head of this household is Senora Rosa Devora Rezo, a grandmother.
ROSA DEVORA REZO: Everything is contaminated-when we bathe we get a lot of itching, rashes appear. A lot of itching and our hair falls out.
BILL MOYERS: If I were one of the owners of the maquiladoras and I had come down and were sitting here talking to you, what would you tell me?
ROSA DEVORA REZO: I would tell them to be considerate of the people living below the hill and not to dump any more contaminated water our way. If we had plumbing and running water, that would be wonderful. We and our children wouldn’t be suffering from the itching on our bodies.
BILL MOYERS: I’d say to that, I understand, but I do provide jobs for your people, I put you to work.
ROSA DEVORA REZO: It is good that they provide jobs for us and our sons and daughters, for our welfare … but if they give us jobs on the one hand and on the other we are sick, that is a problem.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But the threat to Senora Devora’s family is not just from the maquiladoras next door. It also comes from 120 miles north in Los Angeles where most of California’s toxic waste is produced. Because of tough enforcement there and skyrocketing disposal costs, a flow of toxic and hazardous waste is going south.
BILL CARTER: I wouldn’t call it a trickle. I wouldn’t call it a flood. I think its more of a steady stream.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bill Carter is a lead prosecutor with the Environmental Crimes Strike Force in Los Angeles.
BILL CARTER: To some people involved in the generation and transportation of hazardous waste, Mexico is a large open area that they can use as a dump, a landfill take their waste down there and forget about it. To them Mexico is just a big trash can.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, the waste flow south has included everything from poisons and carcinogens like PCB’s; to the solvents and ink from printing plants of the major southern California newspapers. And when we crossed the border into Tijuana, a city of some two million people, we found hazardous waste from the United States stored right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
[voice-over] Sources in Tijuana told us about a shipment of barrels from Los Angeles which led us to a pottery shed; to a cache of hazardous waste. Scores of barrels filled with used solvents like toluene, old paint and poisons smuggled undetected into Mexico. Experts told us Tijuana’s neighborhoods are laced with barrels of waste like these: barrels that have gone down the toxic trail to Tijuana.
BILL CARTER: The intentional disposal of hazardous waste is no less harmful than someone planting a bomb somewhere. This bomb may not go off in a minute or a second or an hour, it may go off 20 years from now. But it’s no less serious than someone planting a bomb. It’s a time bomb.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Most of these barrels of waste came from this aluminum company in Los Angeles.
JOSE ELLOQUI: We hired an individual to uh, transport the hazardous waste to a disposal facility, uh, we paid him what we would have paid any legitimate transporter and uh, he defrauded us.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And the individual was?
JOSE ELLOQUI: Ray Franco.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ray Franco was a hazardous-waste hauler with a criminal history. Franco declined our invitation to talk on camera. But this man, David Torres, a Mexican trucker who hauled the waste across the border, agreed to talk.
DAVID TORRES I just go to the, to the back of the building pick up the drums and that’s it.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You just go to the back of the building.
DAVID TORRES Yes, with Franco.
LOWELL BERGMAN: With Ray Franco.
DAVID TORRES Uh huh.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You trusted him?
DAVID TORRES Well, I never, I never think you know it’s, I don’t know I do something illegal.
LOWELL BERGMAN: How much would he give you for a drum?
DAVID TORRES Thirty dollars for a drum.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Thirty dollars for a drum?
DAVID TORRES Yes, uh huh.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Torres transported the drums to his pottery shed in Tijuana.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Did anyone ever check to see what you were carrying in your truck?
DAVID TORRES No, I never, I never.
LOWELL BERGMAN: No highway patrol.
DAVID TORRES No, no, I never, never.
LOWELL BERGMAN: No … Customs in Mexico?
DAVID TORRES No, no.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But informants tipped off Bill Carter’s Los Angeles-based Environmental Crime Strike Force to the Franco forres smuggling operation.
BILL CARTER: We put Mr. Franco under surveillance, and the first day he was under surveillance we saw him engage in activity that we believed to be suspicious.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The investigation led to that pottery shed touching ofT an unprecedented international law-enforcement operation. The FBI and the California Highway Patrol were allowed access to Torres’ shed by Mexican authorities. It was a landmark, the first time U.S. environmental laws have been used to charge anyone with international trafficking in hazardous waste.
LOS ANGELES DISTRICT ATTORNEY: [Press Conference] We have the complete cooperation of the Mexican government on this case.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] On the Ninth of May, 1990, a federal grand jury indicted Raymond Franco and David Torres. Raymond Franco was arrested and his case is still pending in federal court in Los Angeles. And David Torres, after the indictment, decided not to return to the United States. He is in Mexico where he remains a fugitive.
BILL BAKER: We think the major problem now is with the Mexican border, two thousand miles and let’s face it, drugs are being smuggled in. Why can’t hazardous waste be smuggled out? Uh, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bill Baker is in charge of all criminal investigations at FBI headquarters in Washington. He says environmental crimes and illegal exports in particular are a new priority for the FBI.
BILL MOYERS: When I go to the post office now I see the old most wanted signs, white-collar crime, violent crime, organized crime. Are we going to be seeing environmental crime up there too?
BILL BAKER: Absolutely. The FBI in the ’90s is going to be very busy, and environmental crimes are going to be one of our priorities.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But trying to stem the growing tide of illegal exports is a relatively new priority for law enforcement. The California Highway Patrol has started checking trucks going south to Mexico. But the commitment to enforce our environmental laws leaves a lot to be desired. While the FBI and some local agencies are gearing up, they are the exception. What about the agency charged with protecting the environment? In the EPA’s enforcement division, there are only fifty criminal investigators to handle the whole country. We wanted to talk to EPA Chief William Reilly about this, but he declined, insisting instead that we talk with his assistant, Donald Clay, the head of hazardous waste.
BILL MOYERS: How many enforcement officers do you have working for you in this area, exporting?
DONALD CLAY: Don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t know?
DONALD CLAY: Don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: But I’m told that EPA only has 50 agents working at any time on all environmental issues of enforcement like this, and that’s hardly enough it seems to me to do justice to checking these illegal exports.
DONALD CLAY: Well, I mean, part of it is EPA has lots of people, and it’s always a matter of priorities: do you want them to do this or something else? And it’s a, we have lots of others, we have 12 major environmental statutes to enforce and uh, problems, all problems can’t be the very highest priority.
WENDY GRIEDER: And there are two people doing the waste work, I just got an assistant after nine years.
BILL MOYERS: But the real issue is that I mean it’s an enormous problem out there, and there are just so few of you coping with it.
WENDY GRIEDER: And you feel always every time my phone rings and you get one of these guys is that you’ve got a potential problem that I don’t feel confident after I talk to these people that something might isn’t necessarily going to happen.
BILL MOYERS: You make it sound mild with the “word problem.” But you’re talking about something far more grave than just a problem. You’re talking about turning this world into a dumping ground.
WENDY GRIEDER: And I’m talking about very severe repercussions diplomatically. Waste export is not only an environmental and health issue, it is a foreign policy issue and we’ve come very, very close to having major difficulties with countries because of proposed exports.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To cope with those problems of exporting hazardous waste, delegates from 116 nations gathered in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, seeking international agreement. Most countries of the Third World wanted to outlaw hazardous exports altogether. But the industrialized nations, led by the U.S., insisted on continuing the exports, with some regulation.
After all, the international trade in waste is a growing part of a booming business. In the U.S. alone, hazardous waste disposal adds up to 50 billion dollars a year. (Pause) Ten thousand people who make their living in the business gather in Atlantic City for their annual international convention.
BILL MOYERS: What are these?
MAN: These are total encapsulating suits on the left. Class A type suits and Class B that don’t quite totally encapsulate you.
CONVENTION VENDOR: We ship to a partially government owned facility in Riihimaki, Finland.
CONVENTION VENDOR: -we do have an operation in Canada. We think there is a significant international opportunity.
Mr. BROWN: -our most rapid growth has been in Europe where we’ve grown 10-fold in the past year, year and a half.
JOEL HIRSCHHORN: I don’t think it helps American industry to provide more landfills, more incinerators, or a foreign country to take our toxic waste. What helps America.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] At the convention we talked with Joel Hirschhorn. For the last decade he was in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment-a top advisor on hazardous waste.
BILL MOYERS: If these countries want to import it, if it is so economically valuable to them, why should we care?
JOEL HIRSCHHORN: I’m troubled by two things. We have in the United States the most extensive regulatory system, especially for hazardous waste. Even with that regulatory system we have massive non-compliance by people who generate and manage hazardous waste.
BILL MOYERS: People get around the law.
JOEL HIRSCHHORN: People get around the law.
BILL MOYERS: People get around the regulations.
JOEL HIRSCHHORN: Absolutely. Now I look overseas, I see a very weak regulatory system. So from a moral point of view, when we talk about exporting hazardous waste, what troubles me is that when it gets to that foreign country we have very little assurance that it’s going to be managed in a correct, safe way. A culture, a company, a nation that takes its raw materials, takes energy, takes labor, takes capital and produces waste, garbage, toxic waste is a society, a company that is inefficient, economically inefficient. Companies like 3M and Dow Chemical and Polaroid and a number of others have discovered that if they use their engineering talent, their management talent, to restyle what they’re doing, restructure it, redesign it and they cut their generation of environmental waste they make even more money. Good industry, good practice, good profitability is ultimately linked to the best environmental practices.
CHARLES COLBERT:Hazardous waste, hazardous materials, waste et cetera, this is a big part of the problem because the problem is not only does the language confuse the public. It’s confusing to the people in the, in environmental enforcement agencies. They’re not sure what they’re supposed to be regulating.
JACK COLBERT:The biggest problem in America they face in the next couple of years is where they gonna bury all the garbage. New York ran out of space. Jersey ran out of space. Pennsylvania is running out of space. They’re trucking all the stuff to Ohio right now. I heard Ohio is about to close its borders and not let any more garbage in the state. Because there’s no place to bury it.
JOSEPH CHEN: We are going to put in plastic, oil, any material involving EPA, some material is hazardous waste we got to dispose right away and oil all kinds of oil from transmission, from air compressor, from some other material or transformer containing oil-we’re going to bury them over here.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.