Site MapHelpFeedbackAdditional Case Studies
Additional Case Studies
(See related pages)

Voyage of the Khian Sea, wandering garbage barge
The Exxon Oil Spill, Ten Years Later
Love Canal
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 fiscally responsible?

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 Later

March, 1999

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. <a onClick="'/olcweb/cgi/pluginpop.cgi?it=gif::valdez::/sites/dl/free/0072919833/22972/valdez.gif','popWin', 'width=NaN,height=NaN,resizable,scrollbars');" href="#"><img valign="absmiddle" height="16" width="16" border="0" src="/olcweb/styles/shared/linkicons/image.gif">valdez (57.0K)</a>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.

<a onClick="'/olcweb/cgi/pluginpop.cgi?it=gif::princwil::/sites/dl/free/0072919833/22972/princwil.gif','popWin', 'width=NaN,height=NaN,resizable,scrollbars');" href="#"><img valign="absmiddle" height="16" width="16" border="0" src="/olcweb/styles/shared/linkicons/image.gif">princwil (20.0K)</a>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:

Retrospective, scientific research, and photos from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Retrospective from Puget Sound

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: pp. 302-02
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 may be.


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?

Ethical Considerations

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 be earned?

Cunningham Principles 2/eOnline Learning Center

Home > Chapter 13 > Additional Case Studies