US base toxic trash returns

Editorial, Mainichi Shimbun, Wednesday 19 April 2000

YOKOHAMA—A ship loaded with toxic waste materials generated by the U.S. military in Japan returned here Tuesday despite protests by angry demonstrators.

After attempts to berth in Canada and the United States were quashed, the 65,000-ton Wan He, a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship, returned to Yokohama port to unload the 100 tons of waste that includes 14 containers with lethal polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

PCBs cause skin irritations and some studies link them with birth defects.

Although laws regarding the cross-border transport of toxic waste are clear, treatment of the Wan He's deadly shipment remains caught in a legal quagmire because of the extraterritorial rights granted to the U.S. military under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which mean Japanese regulations cannot be applied.

Bemused government officials had no option but to look on and ponder the next step to be taken.

I think it's the first time we've ever had a shipment returned from overseas like this, Kayoko Shimizu, Environment Agency chief, said at a news conference Tuesday. The Environment Agency will just have to watch for a while to see what happens.

U.S. Embassy officials have confirmed that among the 100 tons of trash are 14 containers of waste materials, such as transformers and waste oils, that contain PCBs.

Wan He first left Yokohama on March 23, bound for Vancouver. However, when it arrived at the port, Canadian officials refused to accept the shipment and turned the Wan He away. The ship headed off to Seattle, Washington, but was also refused entry there.

Upon its return to Yokohama, about 100 demonstrators, mostly members of trade unions and activist groups, protested as workers tried to start unloading the ship. Four members of the environment group Greenpeace jumped aboard the ship and unfurled a banner reading, PCBs are America's trash.

Later, U.S. military officials stored the toxic cargo in a depot in Yokohama, but still have a month to decide which country they will ship it to.

Under the Barsel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, a country exporting toxic waste materials must inform the country that is supposed to receive them in advance. With the Wan He, the U.S. military apparently believed that as the amount of PCBs it was carrying was under the quantities affected by the convention, so it did not need to inform Canadian authorities of its toxic load.

When the shipment was directed to Seattle, U.S. authorities declined to accept it because U.S. law forbids the acceptance of any PCBs generated outside of the United States.

Japan is clear in its stance on PCBs, too. The Waste Disposal and Public Cleaning Law forbids Japanese exports and imports of PCBs without approval from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. However, the law doesn't apply in the Wan He's case because of the extraterritorial rights given by SOFA, which in this case puts the U.S. military above Japanese law.