Frontline examines the profitable export of America's toxic waste


October 02, 1990|By Michael Hill

So the last time your car wouldn't start, you thought all you had to do was buy a new battery. Little did you know you were contributing to lowering the IQs of Taiwan's schoolchildren.

That's one of the many in-your-gut revelations in a disturbing hour that kicks off the new season of Frontline, the top-notch documentary series that is doing its part for Showcase Week -- PBS' premiere week -- with an hour produced in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Journalism and reported by Bill Moyers.

"Global Dumping Ground," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock, lets you know that America's magnificent industrial machine has not just produced a society of enviable affluence, lung-choking clouds of smog around our major cities and filled landfills: It is also churning out tons and tons of toxic materials that are exported to other countries.

Take those automobile batteries, for instance. Some 70 million are discarded in the United States every year. Those that stay at home are recycled in a sophisticated, controlled system. But, when the price of the lead within them climbs to make its recovery economically viable, millions of them head overseas.

In Taiwan, a huge plant melts down many of those batteries containing toxic lead and acids. A school downwind has already been abandoned. Students at other schools in the neighborhood show depressed test scores. Studies are just now examining the effect on workers at the plant, where the show clearly shows environmental controls are primitive at best.

Another operation in Taiwan, aimed at recovering reusable metals from various forms of scrap, discards the accompanying toxic waste in dangerous ways. Sometimes that means burning the plastic insulation off copper wire. Sometimes it means throwing away the PCBs that accompanies electrical components.

Taiwan's nascent environmental protection agency actually shut down that plant -- its owner even agreed it was hazardous. So he moved the operation to China where a government eager for foreign currency gave it a rural location.

"Global Dumping Ground" documents that the waste of the United States ends up all over the globe, much of it just south of the border in Mexico where U.S. companies take advantage of easier environmental regulations to set up recovery operations. Watching water come out of these plants and flow down through neighborhood streets filled with kids playing is a sickening sight.

For the most part, our Environmental Protection Agency does little about these problems. U.S. companies faced with regulations that make it expensive to dispose of waste instead are able to make money selling them abroad.

Oh, a couple of waste exporters were prosecuted -- two brothers who used to fill up warehouses with toxic chemicals and abandon them, leaving behind what they couldn't sell. And they weren't charged with selling poison but rather with mail fraud -- one batch of chemicals that showed up in Zimbabwe wasn't what they said it would be.

As if it's not depressing enough watching all the weapons manufactured and aggressively marketed by U.S. companies lining up to fight each other on both sides in the Gulf crisis, now we learn that another big export is the waste that we consider too hot to handle.

The United States may be that shining city on the hill, but too much of the world just sees the sewer pipe sticking out at the bottom.

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