Florida becomes entry point for illegal Freon shipments Smugglers sell to people with auto air conditioners


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In early 1995, a group of U.S. Customs Service agents in Miami noticed something unusual about the cargo records of a ship called Tropic Sea Horse.

According to the ship's manifest, the vessel left Miami loaded with more shipping containers than it could carry.

Agents suspected that something was going on. They learned later that many of the containers had been illegally diverted to a Miami warehouse.

What the agents uncovered was an elaborate smuggling scheme for a new kind of contraband known as "R-12," the ozone-depleting chemical refrigerant commonly known as "Freon." It's widest use is in car air conditioners.

As of Jan. 1, the United States government banned production of the chemical refrigerant and outlawed imports of new R-12.

Since the early 1990s, the United States has levied hefty excise taxes on R-12 to encourage motorists to convert their car air conditioners to a safer chemical refrigerant known as C-134.

But not everyone has been willing to pay $50 to $200 for the conversion.

The result has been the creation of a lucrative black market in R-12. Florida is the center of much of this illicit business.

"We are talking about tens of millions of dollars at stake in excise tax and illicit profits," said Keith Prager, a supervising agent with U.S. Customs in Miami. "With that kind of money at stake people are going to risk an arrest to try to take some of it off the top."

In a region with a long history of innovative narcotics smugglers, federal agents are scrambling to keep up with the new threat from black market profiteers seeking to cash in on cheap R-12.

"It's like Prohibition all over again," said Tom Watts-Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor in Miami who specializes in environmental cases.

"Any time you set up an economic shortage you make smuggling an attractive option," Mr. Watts-Fitzgerald said. "That sounds a lot like what happened historically with Prohibition."

So far in the United States, 13 individuals and one corporation have been charged with federal crimes related to R-12 smuggling. All but two were operating in Florida.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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