Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Philadelphia dumped 4,000 tons of toxic ash onto a beach in Haiti in 1988. Thirteen years later, the ash and its destructive effects still plague the people of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. So what are we going to do about it?

By Victor Fiorillo & Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 17, 2001

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"After this work, I wake up in the middle of the night. My nerves feel bad. And the rash, it is bad. I really scratch and scratch and scratch. And also spinning, dizzy. There is something with my nervous system. Something attacks my nervous system. I feel depression I never felt before this."

Fifty-two-year-old Rapha�l Elifaite is a resident of Gona�ves, Haiti, the former resort town where toxic waste from a Philadelphia incinerator was dumped in 1988. When the ash was finally removed on April 5, 2000, Elifaite was one of those who worked to clean it up. Before, he says, "I was always fine."

Now Elifaite wants medical treatment, as do many of his colleagues. "I want to go to a hospital in Philadelphia and have them check me out all the way."

There are many men like Elifaite in Haiti. Men who speak an angry French Creole at videotaped press conferences while wearing T-shirts that say "Retour � Philadelphie," or "Return [the ash] to Philadelphia."

A map on the shirt shows Haiti and the East Coast of the United States. A red arrow goes from Gona�ves to Philadelphia. On the bottom are the words "D�chets toxiques Gona�ves," or "Gona�ves' toxic waste."

That this phrase now implies Gona�ves' ownership of the ash is revealing. It has become their problem, but it didn't start out that way. It started as our problem. It started out in Philadelphia. Roxborough, to be specific.

The History

You might not remember the Philadelphia trash crisis of 1986. For most civilians, it only lasted 20 days, after municipal workers walked off the job, leaving the trash behind.

Like all Philadelphia strikes, resolution came just before complete disaster, and most people in the region probably forgot all about it. But there was another trash-related problem to deal with, one that focused on Philadelphia's incinerator ash. We had too much of it--and no way of getting rid of it.

Finally, Joseph Paolino & Sons signed a $6 million contract with the City of Philadelphia to make the ash go away. Paolino & Sons subcontracted Amalgamated Shipping Corp., the operator of a barge called the Khian Sea, to dump the ash in the Bahamas, where Amalgamated Shipping was headquartered.

On Sept. 5, 1986, the Khian Sea left the Delaware River carrying roughly 14,000 tons of ash. "I had opposed it ever since it was shipped out," says City Councilman David Cohen. "That was the time when [then-] Mayor Wilson Goode was acting desperately. Philadelphia had a responsibility. It was Philadelphia waste. I thought it was Philadelphia's responsibility not to dump it in any waters. It wasn't even dumped on a landfill."

It wasn't dumped anywhere, initially, because the Khian Sea kept getting turned away. It was first turned back by the Bahamas, whose government was deterred by the barge's dangerous content.

Joseph Paolino & Sons filed suit against Amalgamated Shipping for breach of contract, but the boat circled the Caribbean Sea for the next 16 to 18 months, trying unsuccessfully to dump the ash in Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guinea-Bissau and the Netherland Antilles.

The resistance to the Khian Sea was due largely to the efforts of Greenpeace. "At that time," recalls Ann Leonard, who now works with Essential Action, "Greenpeace really monitored the movements of the barge. It kept changing ports, paint and names, so we kept sending telex messages to various ports to warn them."

To warn them of what?

"The danger."

On New Year's Eve, 1987, the Khian Sea arrived in Gona�ves, Haiti, a small, impoverished port town on the country's west coast. Contracts signed by the Haitian government, which were supposed to reveal the ship's contents, described the ash as "fertilizer." Jerry Schwartz, a writer for the Associated Press, reported that the government officials who signed the contract were two brothers of Col. Jean-Claude Paul, "a corrupt leader of the Presidential Guard."

And though the Haitian government would turn around the next day and ask to have the ash removed, 4,000 tons of the ash were dumped on the beachfront at Gona�ves. On Feb. 2, 1988, the Haitian Minister of Commerce, Mario Celestin, demanded the Khian Sea take the ash back and find a different dump site. He even went so far as to issue a Court of Justice injunction for the ship to recover its waste. But the boat left in the middle of the night without reclaiming the waste. It still had roughly 10,000 tons of Philadelphia ash to dump.

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