The Multinational Monitor

November 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 11

T H E   F R O N T

Dumping Toxics on the Eastern Bloc

Poland's rush to open its borders to Western trade could have highly toxic consequences.

At least 46,000 tons of sewage sludge, electronic scrap, incinerator ash and other hazardous wastes have been secretly shipped to Poland in the past two years, a new Greenpeace report charges, making it Europe's fastest-growing dumping ground.

"The exploitation of poorer economies by the dumping of hazardous waste is, unfortunately, alive and prospering," says the study called "Poland and the Waste Invasion."

The 45-page report cites West Germany, Austria and Sweden as the primary sources of toxic refuse. It details 64 proposed waste trade schemes involving at least 72 firms in 13 countries and totalling some 22 million metric tons, an amount equivalent to 1,273 pounds of waste for each Polish citizen.

At least one U.S. firm--Raremin, based in San Jose, California-- was involved in an aborted plan to export 17 million tons of toxic, infectious and radioactive waste to Poland, the report says.

Among the waste illegally shipped to Poland was 9,000 tons of PCB-contaminated incineration residues from West Germany's Thyssen steelworks, another 7,000 tons of incinerator ash from West Berlin and more than 15,000 drums containing over 5,000 tons of liquid chemical wastes, paint sludge, solvents and cleaning agents from different sources.

The report warns of dangers posed by the waste, which it says is "threatening various drinking water sources and is stored in unsafe conditions." It notes that one Polish worker was killed after a shed filled with drums of toxic chemicals exploded.

Greenpeace also found that Scandinavian industries, especially Swedish firms, had been using Poland as a cheap disposal market for electronic and cable scrap, which can be extremely dangerous to human health and the environment. In addition, the authors discovered that about 50,000 used batteries, imported from Western sources, were later sold as new products on the Polish market.

Although the Polish government has barred the import of hazardous wastes since 1989, Greenpeace researchers say the ban has been extremely difficult for Polish authorities to implement and enforce. Two problems have been the scarcity of resources to monitor shipments and a lack of experience among customs officials.

Yet an even bigger problem, says the report, is the government's fuzzy definition of what constitutes hazardous waste. Under a newly adopted policy, wastes may be imported for recycling if the recycling process is environmentally safe and if the residues from the processes are sent back to the exporting country. But Greenpeace researchers call this "an extremely dangerous loophole."

"Nothing, even with the best of intentions, can ever be recycled 100 percent," the authors warn, "and most often, vast quantities of hazardous residues will remain dumped in Poland."

Boguslaw Majewski, press officer for the Polish embassy in Washington, says Polish authorities have been trying to slow waste imports, but the difficulty of determining which shipments contain illegal toxics has hampered their efforts.

"I was horrified," Majewski says of Greenpeace's findings. He adds that the Polish press has also been tracking the waste import problem and that government prosecutors are beginning to show a new interest in punishing violators of the import law.

Still, the Greenpeace report claims the solution to the waste import problem lies not in tougher import controls but in the exporting countries themselves. "It's up to the governments [of countries] that are exporting the poisons to make the flow stop," says Jim Vallette, a coauthor of the report. "We need to cut off the cheap escape routes for industry," Vallette adds, noting that an export ban would force both industry and governments to begin looking for ways to reduce hazardous waste production.

Currently, Italy and Norway are the only two Western industrialized countries to have implemented even partial bans on waste exports, according to Greenpeace, which is seeking a global ban on the international waste trade.

Poland is in many ways typical of other poor countries in Eastern Europe and around the world, forced to choose between short-term economic gain and long-term environmental and human health protections. "Wastes are being dumped on the countries that are the most politically and economically helpless," says Vallette.

The former East Germany, for example, is traditionally Europe's largest waste importer. It is home to what maybe the world's largest toxic waste dump in Schoenberg and takes in more than 5 million tons of waste during an average year, according to Greenpeace estimates. The former East German government put the level at one million tons annually.

Although East Germany has begun to move out of the waste import business and 68 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries signed a treaty last year to halt the waste trade, Greenpeace believes new countries will almost certainly step in to pick up the slack unless governments impose export bans.

Waste export is "a shadowy trade that is deliberately being kept in the shadows by governments" which do not want to take responsibility for their own waste disposal problems, says Vallette.

"When you live in a neighborhood, you don't dump on your neighbors," he says. "It's a matter of environmental rights."

- Susan Hansen

Susan Hansen is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Labor's Press

Over an eight day period in the summer of 1989, Soviet coal miners staged a series of strikes. The American media embraced the strikers as symbols of challenge to the Soviet system, and all the major U.S. newspapers and the three television network nightly newscasts showered them with positive coverage. In September 1989, a six-month United Mine Workers of America strike against the Pittston Coal Group over pension and health benefits climaxed in a dramatic four-day takeover of a coal processing plant in Virginia. This historic action, the first major occupation of a U.S. plant since the 1937 sitdown strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, was ignored by the New York Times and the three networks. The Pittston strike as a whole also received much less favorable and sympathetic coverage than the Soviet miners' strike.

The lack of coverage of the Pittston strike inspired media watch organization, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), to sponsor a six-month study analyzing the coverage that newspapers and the networks give to labor issues. Labor reporter Jonathan Tasini, who conducted the study, concludes in the September 1990 report, "Lost in the Margins: Labor and the Media," that "the lives of 100 million working people--those who make the U.S. economy and society run--are being routinely ignored, marginalized or inaccurately portrayed in the media."

The FAIR study reports that the amount of media coverage of labor issues has declined rapidly over the past 10 years. At most U.S. newspapers labor no longer exists as a beat; stories about workers are reported to the business desk, which focuses its coverage on managers and professionals. Workers and unions also fair poorly on television. In 1989, little more than two percent of the total air time of the network evening news was given over to issues involving labor, including childcare, the minimum wage and worker safety and health. Reporting on business and economics received twice that amount of air time.

The quality of labor reporting is also in decline. Since reporters at most mid-size and large papers do not cover labor full-time, their knowledge of the issues and history surrounding stories about workers and unions is often limited. David Moberg, labor reporter for In These Times, a Chicago-based, weekly newspaper, points out that these reporters usually come from a middleclass background and have had little contact with people involved in organized labor. As a result, their coverage can display a lack of depth and understanding about union issues. According to the FAIR report, reporters covering the Pittston strike "continually missed the emotional and economic importance of the pension and health benefit funds to the mining communities."

The report further notes that stories reported to business editors tend to "soften or ignore corporate responsibility for the lack of health care, safe working conditions or dignity on the job." Coverage of the 1989 Eastern airlines strike (which garnered the majority of the media attention devoted to labor issues last year) focused on the financial strategy of Eastern owner Frank Lorenzo, while largely ignoring the effect this strategy had upon thousands of Eastern employees. The media rarely reports labor stories that do not involve strikes, such as worker safety problems or labor-management conflicts that do not result in work stoppages.

Finally, what coverage American unions and workers do receive tends to be negative. For example, the FAIR report notes that on July 28, 1989, the New York Times ran a story on the fines handed down to the UMWA for the purported "acts of terror" of some of the striking miners. The article made no mention of the union's widespread use of non-violent civil disobedience.

Tasini believes that the decline in labor reporting coincides with the "concentration of the media in fewer and fewer corporate hands." The FAIR report states, "More than any single institution, the media have turned the corporate executive into a star. Conversely, the message, stated as well as subliminal, that the lives of workers are less important has spread into newsrooms in every corner of the United States."

Pat Aufderheide, assistant professor of communications at American University, believes that this concentration of ownership makes a priority of ensuring that "every page of newspaper is profit-making and entertaining." She points out that papers with this priority are less likely to cover U.S. labor stories which ultimately must recognize fundamental class differences and are therefore "inherently conflictual." While stories about Poland's Solidarity union or striking Soviet coal miners can be presented as cases of freedom and democracy triumphing over communism, stories about coal miners striking in southwestern Virginia can only lead readers to the conclusion, as Aufderheide says, "that somebody is unhappy in America."

Editors at these papers tend not to allocate resources for stories about workers, leading reporters to look upon labor coverage as a dead end. Moberg says that labor ranks "very low" in "the unstated hierarchy of importance of assignments." James Warren, former labor editor for the Chicago Tribune (now the paper's national media reporter), does not believe that reporters are necessarily responding to messages from editors or corporate owners. He asserts that reporters have strayed from the labor beat simply because, to most of them, "labor means unions [and] unions are seen in decline." Journalists do not consider labor reporting a path for career advancement.

Moberg points out that the media is not wholly to blame for the lack of labor coverage. Many union leaders have grown wary of reporters and may not be "upfront and aggressive" with journalists. Often they fail to create the type of excitement that attracts media attention.

Ultimately, U.S. news watchers and readers get an incomplete and skewed vision of labor in the United States. Workers come to believe that the media do not understand or care about their struggles, and the public is increasingly desensitized to labor issues. Tasini concludes, "Decades ago, workers were extolled for their contributions to the community. Today, what they do is not celebrated and ... a central part of the pulse of everyday life is deadened."

- Holley Knaus

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