Voyage of the Khian Sea, wandering garbage barge
The Exxon Oil Spill, Ten Years Later
Community group cleans up Chicago industrial district
What a Long, Strange Trip It Has Been
On August 31, 1986, the cargo ship Khian Sea loaded 14,000 tons (28 million
pounds) of toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia and set off on an odyssey
that symbolizes a predicament we all share: what to do with our refuse. Starting
in the 1970s, Philadelphia burned most of its municipal garbage and sent the
resulting incinerator ash to a landfill in New Jersey. In 1984, when New Jersey
learned that the ash contained enough arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin,
and other toxins to be classified as hazardous waste, it refused to accept any
more. When six other states also rejected incinerator ash shipments, Philadelphia
was in a predicament. What would they do with 180,000 tons of the stuff every
year? The answer was to send it offshore to countries with less stringent environmental
standards. A local contractor offered to transport it to the Caribbean. The
Khian Sea was to be the first of those shipments.
When the Khian Sea tried to unload its cargo in the Bahamas, however, it
was turned away. Over the next 14 months, the ship also was refused entry by
the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau (in West Africa),
and the Netherlands Antilles. Finally in late, 1987, the Haitian government
issued a permit for "fertilizer" import, and the crew dumped 4000 tons of ash
on the beach near the city of Gonaives. Alerted by the environmental group,
Greenpeace, that the ash wasn't really fertilizer, Haitian officials canceled
the permit and ordered everything returned to the ship, but the Khian Sea slipped
away in the night, leaving behind a large pile of loose ash. Some of the waste
has been moved inland and buried, but much of it remains on the beach, slowly
being scattered by the wind and washed into the sea.
After it left Haiti, the Khian Sea visited Senegal, Morocco, Yugoslavia,
Sri Lanka, and Singapore looking for a place to dump its toxic load. As it wandered
the oceans looking for a port, the ship changed its name from Khian Sea to Felicia
to Pelacano. Its registration was transferred from Liberia to the Bahamas to
Honduras in an attempt to hide its true identity, but nobody wanted it or its
contents. Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, it seemed cursed to roam the oceans
forever. Two years, three names, four continents, and 11 countries later, the
troublesome cargo was still on board. Then, somewhere in the Indian Ocean between
Singapore and Sri Lanka all the ash disappeared. When questioned about this,
the crew had no comment except that it was all gone. Everyone assumes, of course,
that once out of sight of the land, it was just dumped overboard.
If this were just an isolated incident, perhaps it wouldn't matter much.
However, some 3 million tons of hazardous and toxic waste goes to sea every
year looking for a dumping site. A 1998 report by the United Nations Human Rights
Commission listed the United States as a major exporter of toxic waste. In 1989-at
least in part due to the misadventures of the Khian Sea-33 countries met in
Basel, Switzerland, and agreed to limit international shipment of toxic waste,
especially from the richer countries of the world to the poorer ones. Eventually
118 countries-not including the United States-ratified the Basel Convention.
In 1995, the United States announced it would ratify the Convention but reserved
the right to ship "recyclable" materials to whomever will take them. Since almost
everything potentially can be recycled into something, that hardly puts any
limits at all on what we send offshore.
The latest development in the saga of the Khian Sea, is that Haiti has
asked Philadelphia to help pay for cleanup of the ash still sitting on the beach.
Eastern Environmental Services, one of whose principal owners was responsible
for dumping the load in Haiti 12 years ago, has agreed to retrieve what's left
and bury it in a landfill in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's share would be $200,000,
or about one-third of the total cleanup cost. The city of brotherly love in
spite of having a $130 million budget surplus last year, claims it can't afford
to help out. Is this a case of environmental racism, or simply a matter of being
Although most of us don't have as big or world-famous a problem as Philadelphia,
all of us contribute to some degree to related problems. We all generate vast
amounts of unwanted stuff every year. Places to put our trash are becoming more
and more scarce as the contents have become increasingly unpleasant and dangerous.
We don't want it in our backyards, so it often ends up in those of the poorest
and least powerful, both in this country and around the world. In this chapter,
we will look at the kinds of waste we produce, who makes them, what problems
their disposal cause, as well as how we might reduce our waste production and
dispose of it in more environmentally friendly ways.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Ten Years
Prince William Sound, Alaska
It was ten years ago on March 23 that the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran
aground on Bligh Reef, leaking 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's
Prince William Sound and creating the most notorious oil spill in US history.
While the spill was a major disaster, it has provided unusual opportunities
for scientific research into the aftermath of a major spill. With the
tenth anniversary scientists and policy makers are reflecting on what
we have learned, and what we still don't know, about responding to oil
spills. valdez (57.0K)valdez
Although the Exxon Valdez spill was far from the biggest oil spill in
history, and even though it was only one of dozens of major spills that
occur every year, this accident gained notoriety because it was the biggest
marine spill in US history and because it occurred in the spectacularly
scenic Prince William Sound. The area is treasured for its scenic beauty
and its wildlife, including sea otters, orcas, and many species of sea
birds. Currents carried the oil 500 miles from the wounded tanker, staining
1,400 miles of beaches. At least 300,000 birds and 2,600 otters were killed.
Armies of clean-up crews spent over 2 billion dollars blasting beaches
with steam cleaners and scrubbing oil from rocks by hand all under extensive
national media coverage. Most alarming of all was the discovery that the
ship ran aground because the captain was drunk at the helm. The resulting
lawsuit dragged out for several years and is still undergoing appeals.
Exxon has still not paid damages to plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
Ten years later, Exxon, the corporation that owned the ship, is trumpeting
the success of clean-up and pointing to once oily beaches that now show
no sign of oil. Likewise, cruise ship operators in the region are very
happy with the outcome of a spill. From the deck of a ship, the shore
and waters of the sound look serene and pristine, as though the spill
never occurred. Furthermore, the notoriety of the Valdez spill has multiplied
the number of tourists visiting the region, increasing revenues.
princwil (20.0K)princwil Biologists and sea kayakers,
though, have a closer view of the beaches and estuaries, and they see
a very different state of affairs. Just below the surface oil and tar
still saturate the beaches, and many species have failed to recover or
return. While salmon and some birds appear to be recovering, loons, seals,
orcas, and some ducks are showing little or no improvement ten years later.
Still more disturbing, ecologists studying the area say that in some cases
the millions of dollars spent on clean up actually caused more harm than
help. Steam-cleaning and pressure washing drove the oil deep into the
rocky beaches and killed natural bacteria that could have helped break
down oil residues. Birds have yet to return to beaches.
Scientists studying clean-up methods and the effects of the spill have
learned a number of important things. To start with, they are reconsidering
the effectiveness of human efforts in spill remediation. The $2 billion
spent on the Valdez clean up only captured about 15% of the spilled oil.
Natural microorganisms and solar energy were probably more effective overall.
It appears that hand-cleaning birds and mammals by hand does relatively
little good, since the cleaned animals are likely to die after release.
Oil exposure also compromises the immune system in young fish, an effect
that could significantly impact long-range stability in the salmon fishing
industry. Of two dozen species watched by a special monitoring group,
only two have recovered in ten years, the bald eagle and river otter.
On the other hand, no species in the region have gone extinct, and many
appear to be stabilizing. Perhaps the most important lessons are that
natural cleanup systems work and that complex ecosystems can be very resilient.
For further information, see these related web sites:
scientific research, and photos from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
To read more, see
Environmental Science, A Global Concern, Cunningham and Saigo, 5th ed.
Map of oil spills worldwide: p. 450
Ocean pollution: pp. 449-50
map of oil fields, showing the trans-Alaska pipeline: 468
Environmental Science, Enger and Smith, 6th ed. Marine oil pollution:
Energy consumption patterns: pp. 138-42
The Forgotten Wastes of Love Canal
Love Canal is a 16-acre landfill in a residential neighborhood of Niagara
Falls, New York. It was intended to be the center of a budding nineteenth-century
industrial empire, but the canal never was finished and finally became a dump
for industrial waste. This was the beginning of a story that decades later came
back to haunt the people of Niagara Falls. It cost them their homes, their health,
and hundreds of millions of dollars in rescue efforts.
Early in the century, Love Canal stood empty. It was used mostly as a local
swimming hole. In 1942, the city of Niagara Falls began dumping garbage there.
The Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, a local industry that had been
in the neighborhood since the early days of the canal, also dumped chemical
wastes into it. Few people lived in the area, and there was little opposition
to the dumping. In April 1945, a Hooker engineer wrote in an internal memo that
Love Canal was "a quagmire which will be a potential source of lawsuit."
A year later, the company purchased the canal and turned it into a large-scale
industrial landfill. Over the next six years, more than 20,000 metric tons of
chemical wastes, including highly toxic pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals--some
of them contaminated with dioxins —were dumped into the canal.
In the 1950s, the city of Niagara Falls was growing rapidly and had surrounded
the canal. Neighbors complained of foul odor and rats in the dump. It was thought
that a solution to both land shortage and pollution problems would be to fill
in the site and develop it for housing. In 1953, Hooker sold the site to the
Board of Education and the City of Niagara for $1.00 on the condition that the
company be released from any liability for injury or damage caused by the dump's
contents. Homes were built on the land adjacent to the canal, and in 1954, a
school and playground were built on the top of the chemical dump itself.
Much of the abandoned canal was a swampy, weedy gully with pools of stagnant
oily water. Children played in this wasteland, poking sticks in the black sludge
that accumulated on the water and throwing rocks at the drums that floated to
the surface. Parents complained that their children were burned by chemicals
in the canal; dogs that roamed there developed skin diseases, and their hair
fell out in clumps. Clearly, something was wrong.
In 1977, an engineering firm was hired to inspect the site and determine
why basements in the area were filled with dark, smelly seepage after every
rain. They discovered that the groundwater was contaminated with a variety of
toxic organic chemicals. Several mothers, concerned about the health of their
children, circulated a petition to close the school and adjacent playing fields.
As they went from door to door, they became aware that many families had children
with birth defects or chronic medical problems, such as asthma, bronchitis,
continuing infections, and hyperactivity. There seemed to be an unusually high
rate of miscarriages and stillbirths in the area as well. These informal surveys
were dismissed by authorities as "housewife research," but on August
2, 1978, New York State ordered the emergency evaluation of all families living
within two blocks of the canal.
Those people whose houses were not purchased by the state watched with
mixed feelings as their neighbors departed. Suppose the house across the street
from you had been condemned but you were just outside the quarantined area and
had to stay. How safe would you feel? Residents traced old streambeds that crossed
the canal and showed that chemical residues came up in wet areas, sometimes
blocks from the dump site. Disputes, public rallies, lawsuits, and negotiations
continued for six years.
Finally, 1988, Occidental Petroleum (the parent company of Hooker Chemical
and Plastics) agreed to pay some $250 million in damages to Love Canal residents.
Two years later, after twelve years of rehabilitation work, the EPA concluded
that four of seven areas in Love Canal are "habitable." (The other
three are slated to become industrial areas or parkland.) A state-of-the-art
containment system has sealed off the dump itself with thick clay walls and
two clay caps. The 239 houses immediately surrounding the dump have been demolished.
Some 236 previously abandoned houses in the next ring around the dumpsite were
sold at bargain prices to people who didn't know or didn't care about their
previous history. The government claims that pollution levels have been reduced
enough to make the houses safe. Critics argue that the area is still dangerous
and that people should not be allowed to live there. What do you think? Would
you move into one of those houses? Should others be allowed to do so?
Love Canal has become a symbol of the dangers and uncertainties of toxic
industrial chemicals in the environment. The tragedy is that there probably
are many Love Canals, some much worse than the original one. No one knows what
the total cost of our carelessness in disposing of these chemical wastes ultimately
People for Community Recovery
The Lake Calumet Industrial District on Chicago's far South Side is an
environmental disaster area. A heavily industrialized center of steel mills,
oil refineries, railroad yards, coke ovens, factories, and waste disposal facilities,
much of the site is now a marshy wasteland of landfills, toxic waste lagoons,
and slag dumps, around a system of artificial ship channels.
At the southwest corner of this degraded district sits Altgeld Gardens,
a low-income public housing project built in the late 1940s by the Chicago Housing
Authority. The 2000 units of "The Gardens" or "The Projects," as they are called
by the largely minority residents, are low-rise rowhouses, many of which are
vacant or in poor repair. But residents of Altgeld Gardens are doing something
about their neighborhood. People for Community Recovery (PCR) is a grassroots
citizen's group organized to work for a clean environment, better schools, decent
housing, and job opportunities for the Lake Calumet neighborhood.
PCR was founded in 1982 by Mrs. Hazel Johnson, an Altgeld Gardens resident
whose husband died from cancer that may have been pollution-related. PCR has
worked to clean up more than two dozen waste sites and contaminated properties
in their immediate vicinity. Often this means challenging authorities to follow
established rules and enforce existing statutes. Public protests, leafleting,
and community meetings have been effective in public education about the dangers
of toxic wastes and have helped gain public support for cleanup projects.
PCR's efforts successfully blocked construction of new garbage and hazardous
waste landfills, transfer stations, and incinerators in the Lake Calumet district.
Pollution prevention programs have been established at plants still in operation.
And PCR helped set up a community monitoring program to stop illegal dumping
and to review toxic inventory data from local companies.
Education is an important priority for PCR. An environmental education
center administered by community members organizes workshops, seminars, fact
sheets, and outreach for citizens and local businesses. A public health education
and screening program has been set up to improve community health. Partnerships
have been established with nearby Chicago State University to provide technical
assistance and training in environmental issues.
PCR also works on economic development. Environmentally responsible products
and services are now available to residents. Jobs that are being created as
"green" businesses are brought into the community. Wherever possible local people
and minority contractors from the area are hired to clean up waste sites and
restore abandoned buildings. Job training for youth and adults as well as retraining
for displaced workers is a high priority. Funding for these projects has come
from fines levied on companies for illegal dumping.
PCR and Mrs. Johnson have received many awards for their fight against
environmental racism and despair. In 1992, PCR was the recipient of the President's
Environmental and Conservation Challenge Award. PCR is the only African-American
grassroots organization in the country to receive this prestigious award.
Although Altgeld Gardens is far from clean, much progress has been made.
Perhaps the most important accomplishment is community education and empowerment.
Residents have learned how and why they need to work together to improve their
living conditions. Could these same lessons be useful in your city or community?
What could you do to help improve urban environments where you live?
Is the proximity of low-income housing and industrial waste dumps evidence
for environmental injustice or merely a question of economics? Most residents
of Altgeld Gardens are racial minorities; does that make this an example of
environmental racism? What evidence would you need to decide these questions?
Is a clean, safe environment a basic human right or something that needs to