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2000-12-06

UN to Decide on Toxic Chemical Ban Treaty

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Activists from around the world have gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, where 120 nations are negotiating the terms of a global treaty that could ban some of the most toxic chemicals in the world. Some of these activists come from some of the world’s toxic hotspots, where cancer rates have soared because of environmental pollution. [includes rush transcript]

The treaty focuses on 12 of the deadliest chemicals, including PCBs, pesticides such as DDT and industrial byproducts such as dioxin. The "dirty dozen" chemicals seep into the ground, water and air, threatening babies through breast milk and arctic indigenous people through the flesh of the fatty fish they eat.

The delegates began six days of negotiations yesterday in the fifth and final summit planned before a treaty is signed in May in Stockholm, Sweden. Activists are particularly critical of the United States, accusing its representatives of undermining the treaty.

Among those at the meeting are residents of an area of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, home to the largest number of vinyl production plants in the United States. The plants release 8 million pounds of pollution annually. The largest concentration is located in predominantly African American communities like Mossville, in the Lake Charles region of Louisiana, where cancer rates are many times higher than the national average.

Guests:

  • Rick Hind, Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Legislative Director. Speaking from Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • David Prince, Environmental activist from Mossville, Louisiana, whose entire family has fallen ill from the effects of several vinyl plastic factories that operate in his community. Yesterday he addressed the UN conference.
  • Von Hernandes, Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines). He is fighting for clean air in his community, which is contaminated by PCB’s coming from deserted US military bases.

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Activists from around the world have gathered in Johannesburg, where 120 nations are negotiating the terms of a global treaty that could ban some of the most toxic chemicals in the world. Some of these activists come from some of the world’s toxic hotspots, where cancer rates have soared because of environmental pollution.

The treaty focuses on twelve of the deadliest chemicals, including PCBs, pesticides, such as DDT, and industrial byproducts, such as dioxin. These "dirty dozen" chemicals seep into the ground, water and air, threatening babies through breast milk and arctic indigenous people through the flesh of the fatty fish that they eat.

The delegates began six days of negotiations yesterday in the fifth and final summit planned before a treaty is signed in May in Stockholm, Sweden. The activists are particularly critical of the United States, accusing its representatives of undermining the treaty.

Among those who are meeting are residents of an area of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, home to the largest number of vinyl production plants in the United States. The plants release eight million pounds of pollution annually, the largest concentration located in predominantly African American communities.

We’re joined on the telephone from South Africa by David Prince, an environmental activist from Mossville, Louisiana, whose entire family has fallen ill from the effects of several vinyl plastics factories that operate in his community. Welcome to Democracy Now! from South Africa, David Prince.

DAVID PRINCE: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we appreciate you being on. I should tell our listeners, all of our guests are on cell phones in South Africa. So I hope this segment goes well. But we think that the importance of the information was important enough to risk this.

Tell us what’s happening in your community and why you’re in South Africa?

DAVID PRINCE: Oh, yes, the reason I’m here in Johannesburg is basically a twofold reason. One is to relate to the world the devastating effect of dioxin poisons that have caused my entire family many, many, many ailments and many other people in my community of Mossville, Louisiana. And a second reason why I am here is to urge our government, the United States, to play a positive role in signing a treaty that will ultimately eliminate dioxins.

Now, my community lives with PVC production plants that routinely emit toxic pollutants that are affecting our health. When I last attended such a meeting of this type in Geneva, Switzerland about a year and a half ago, my wife, Diane, was in remission from ovarian cancer. Today, her cancer has returned and now is undergoing a regimen of chemotherapy. Today, her cancer seems not to be slowing down as it did before.

My daughter, my oldest daughter, who suffers from endometriosis, has been told that she will need to undergo a hysterectomy, thereby eliminating any chance for childbearing. And that’s very devastating to my wife and I. My oldest son, who is now doing well, after his operation from a deviated septum. But my youngest daughter, she still suffers from bleeding kidneys, and my youngest son, of course, suffers from bleeding ulcers.

All of the above ailments that I just mentioned are principally due to the fact that our local, state and federal governments are unable or unwilling to stop chemical industries, such as Condea Vista and PPG, from dumping massive amounts of pollutants, such as PVC production chemicals into our — into the air we breathe on a daily basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Rick Hind of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign —

DAVID PRINCE: [inaudible] to have them stop, it seems like all of our efforts fall on deaf ears. Now, in the United States — yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

DAVID PRINCE: I cannot hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to bring Rick Hind into the conversation, the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign legislative director, also speaking to us from Johannesburg, and ask how you think an international global treaty can affect David Prince’s family, his community in Mossville, Louisiana.

RICK HIND: Well, right now, the way we’re going, we’re a little pessimistic about that, because the only thing that may be more dangerous than these chemicals is the US efforts to sabotage or at least try to weaken the treaty and render it useless. But if the treaty were to be embraced as a strong phase-out of toxic materials like dioxin and furans and PCBs, then we would see a mandate, as well as proposals for solutions or alternatives that every country would be required to move ahead on. This is a legally binding instrument to phase out these chemicals once and for all. Obviously, many of them will not be done overnight. And that means that the US for the first time would have to look into ways to avoid dioxin, not just reduce it or minimize it, which is all the US administration is willing to do right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What role do lobbyists play in the US position in this global treaty?

RICK HIND: Well, we were actually trying to get a chemical industry spokesman on the show here. And I just found somebody. But it was a little too late to book him on your show. There’s many representatives of the chemical industry, both from Europe, Canada and the US, who play a key role in formulating the US’s position. And then the US organizes other industrial countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in a bloc that is a minority, but nevertheless powerful alliance to, in the case of earlier this year, even intimidate other countries.

For example, the US sent a threatening memo to the European Union suggesting that the POPs treaty would collapse unless the EU backed off of strong positions on dioxin and other issues. So another big issue here, for example, is funding for the developing world. Small countries don’t have the resources of New York State, let alone the US EPA.

And so, these countries are asking for some assistance in implementing these phase-out strategies. For most of them, they will not need much, because they either will be switching to cheaper or safer things or they’ll be avoiding the kinds of expensive pollution-control devices, like scrubbers on smokestacks, that the US has been essentially using as a substitute for pollution prevention.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to — the major companies that are lobbying there?

RICK HIND: Well, these chemical industry trade associations represent the major companies that are polluting in David Prince’s community, such as PPG and Dow Chemical or Borden Chemical, and so forth. They also represent, you know, the same companies, the multinationals — Dow, DuPont, Union Carbide — globally, in Europe and elsewhere. And as you’ll hear, these companies were and are responsible for contamination around the globe: the Philippines, India, China, Japan, and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of the Philippines, we want to bring in Von Hernandes for a last comment. We’re going to make the break a bit late today, because everyone’s on cell phone. We don’t want to lose him, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Philippines activist in Johannesburg now, also for the U.N. conference on these toxins, a global treaty that could ban some of the most toxic chemicals in the world. You’ve been dealing with the PCBs coming from deserted US military bases in the Philippines. What are — can you describe these sites, Von Hernandes?

VON HERNANDES: Yes, well, we’re talking here of two — yes, thank you. We are talking here of two former US bases, which used to be the largest facilities outside the United States. And both bases, Clark and Subic, have been closed down years ago and are now under the Philippine government, who has converted them into economic production centers.

Unfortunately, when the US government left, they also left behind a toxic legacy. And we are now finding out that many sites within the former bases are actually contaminated, not only with PCBs, but also other persistent pollutant pesticides like DDT, chlordane and other toxic substances.

And we are here in Johannesburg, because we want to highlight each of these two bases as actually global hotspots. If you consider that right now, studies point — existing studies that we have point to a serious problem in both areas, and you have communities now suffering from the effects of these chemicals left behind by the US military.

AMY GOODMAN: Von Hernandes, I want to thank you for joining us. I wish you could be clearer, but it’s quite incredible that we can speak to you all in South Africa on your cell phones, as you deal with this U.N. conference dealing with some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind. Von Hernandes of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, the website of Greenpeace is www,greenpeace.org.

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