I was all set to write about Agbogbloshie, the neighborhood in Accra, Ghana, that is the world’s epicenter of toxic e-waste. But in researching the topic, I stumbled upon the tangentially related story of the Khian Sea, a ocean-going vessel that sailed the seas for years with a payload of poisonous incinerator ash from Philadelphia. Maybe not as timely as the e-waste situation, but a good lesson in environmental history and a reminder that the long arc of history bends toward justice.
Our story begins in 1986 at the Northwest Incinerator in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough, where a good portion of the city’s garbage ended up. The facility devoured the trash in its fiery maw and transformed it into ash, which contained dangerous amounts of aluminum, arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, chromium, and dioxins. The ash had previously been landfilled in New Jersey, but recently the state had wised up and stopped accepting Philly’s sad remains. Instead, the incinerator’s managers contracted with an independent waste hauler to take 15,000 tons of ash off their hands.
The waste hauler, Joseph Paolino and Sons, offloaded the ash to the corporate operators of the Khian Sea, sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience. The Khian Sea planned to sail to some poor, unsuspecting country and dump the ash there. This was business as usual back in the day.
Funny thing, though. The countries the Khian Sea sailed to didn’t want the toxic ash. For 16 months the ship sailed to one country after another: Honduras, Panama, Guinea Bissau, Dutch Antilles. All refused to be a dumping ground for America’s pulverized garbage. Eventually, 4,000 tons wound up on the shores of Gonaives, Haiti, after the ship’s management convinced Haitian officials the ash was really topsoil fertilizer. The ship set sail just as Haitian officials got wise to the scheme and ordered the shipping company to take back their “topsoil fertilizer.” The ship’s captain pretended he didn’t hear them.
Still laden with 11,000 tons of ash and a bad reputation, the Khian Sea left the Western Hemisphere. Next ports of call: Senegal, Sri Lanka, Singapore. No one wanted their tainted cargo. The shipping company launched Plan B: They changed the ship’s name and registration. The Liberian-registered Khian Sea became the Honduran-registered Felicia. Plan B failed. The ship changed its name again to the Pelicano. Still no luck.
Then, in late 1988, somewhere between Singapore and Sri Lanka, the remaining 11,000 tons of ash disappeared. Five years and reams of legal documents later, the owners of the shipping company were convicted of perjury for denying they had ordered to crew to dump the ash in the ocean.
This still left the small issue of the 4,000 tons of topsoil fertilizer in Haiti, which the government of the impoverished nation had demanded be removed. In 1997—eleven years after the debacle began—the New York City Trade Waste Commission granted a license to Eastern Environmental Services (EES) to operate in the city. Guess who owned EES? A guy from Joseph Paolino and Sons—the firm that made the original deal with the Khian Sea. The terms of the license stipulated that they take back the ash that was still sitting on the dock in Gonaives. Three years later—in 2000—the ash was loaded onto a barge and shipped to Florida. Haiti, however, was still on the hook for the lion’s share of the shipping costs to remove the ash they didn’t want in the first place. The barge remained docked in the St. Lucie Canal for a couple of years until the Environmental Protection Agency declared the ash nonhazardous and thus suitable for the landfill. The ash’s long journey ended at the Mountain View Reclamation Landfill in Antrim, Pennsylvania, not far from where it had been generated sixteen years earlier.
The Basel Convention
The saga of the Khian Sea was an impetus for the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This UN treaty was signed in 1989, shortly after the Philly ash had been illegally dumped in the ocean, and entered into force in 1992, amidst the worst of the legal wrangling.
The purpose of the Basel Convention is to prevent developed countries from foisting their hazardous waste onto less developed countries, a practice known as “toxic colonialism.” Oddly enough, the treaty has had wide support; only the United States and Haiti have not ratified it.
In recent years, however, conferences regarding the Basel Convention have focused on e-waste. Thousands of tons of discarded electronic products have found their way to developing nations under the guise of being a commodity that has value in recycling its components. But those interested in adhering to the spirit of the Basel Convention argue that e-waste is simply waste, not a commodity, and that the recycling business exploits poor people and causes health problems.
In the forefront of this movement is the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based NGO devoted to ending the practice of treating places like Guiyu, China and Agbogbloshie, Ghana, as “digital dumping grounds.”
This, as you can imagine, is a serious topic for another time. But the story of the Khian Sea has two interesting footnotes: First, the Northwest Incinerator, which generated the toxic ash that bedeviled the ship, was eventually decommissioned and converted into office space. The project received a LEED Silver Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning it attained a high level of energy efficiency. Thus, instead of generating environmental waste as the facility used to, it is now a beacon of conservation in the neighborhood.
Second, in 2002, as the remaining several tons of ash were residing on a barge in Florida, journalist Glenn Henderson saw for himself what had become of the toxic payload, which was recounted later in Mark Frauenfelder’s book The World’s Worst:
“Squeezing between multitudes of spider webs, I peered down into the ‘hold’ and couldn’t believe my eyes. Australian pines were everywhere, some as tall as 10 feet. There were dandelions, weeds with small blue-and-yellow blossoms, patches of seemingly manicured grass, and tall brown weeds resting in layers across grayish piles punctuated by pure-white chunks of who-knows-what. And there was a hibiscus plant with pretty pink blooms.”
Not sure I want to read too much into this, but it is a reminder that nature, given time and proper conditions, has the capacity to heal itself.