Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 150 | Enero 1994



Selling Sewage Sludge: A Dirty Deal

The development of the developed countries was undertaken without knowing for sure what it was that was being developed. In large measure, what was being developed was wasteful consumption, weapons of mass destruction, and harmful waste products. It is all rubbish that is becoming ever more abundant and more dangerous.

Raquel Fernández

They tore away our fruits,
they cut our branches,
they burned our trunks, and now
they want to dry out our roots
filling up our soils
with toxic garbage

(A slightly updated version of the Popol Vuh, Las Antiguas Historias del Quiché).

Development in the developed countries took place without anyone knowing for sure what was being developed. And what was being developed was, to a large degree, wasteful consumption, weapons for mass destruction and garbage. Garbage that has become increasingly abundant and dangerous.

At the beginning, it seemed that it would be easy to make it disappear, to bury it, recycle it or burn it. But that was many years ago. For quite some time now, the developed countries of the North have been disgusted with their own waste and want to dump it in the South.

Up to a certain point, the cycle makes sense. The North is what it is thanks to the flow from the South of a whole array of resources: economic ones (capital flight, foreign debt payments), human ones (the brain drain and labor migration) and natural ones (cheap raw materials). Thus, it now seems righteous to the North that it should repay us by sending us one of its main resources: waste.

One Advantage of the Embargo

Nicaragua is different from its neighbors in almost everything. The difference this time has to do with the fact that, in contrast with the other Central American countries, very little toxic waste has come into Nicaragua.

When the toxic waste export boom began, Nicaragua was still chafing under the embargo declared by the Reagan administration in 1985. Much has been written about the economic toll the embargo took on the Nicaraguan economy. Undoubtedly, the damages were enormous and their effects will be felt for decades. But there has been little reflection about the benefits this very embargo brought to Nicaragua. It allowed the country to remain at arm's length from the three most feared plagues of the end of this millennium: AIDS, drugs and toxic waste. Unfortunately, these benefits are easily and rapidly reversed.

The backslide in terms of drugs and AIDS has been shocking. The statistics are increasingly alarming, although it would seem that nobody with any decision making power is particularly concerned, as little or nothing is being done to deal with these problems.

With respect to toxic waste, Nicaragua has kept its house relatively clean, but not because the official parties responsible for doing so have put any effort into it. It is society as a whole that, alerted by environmental organizations like the Nicaraguan Environmental Movement (MAN), has blocked the arrival of toxic waste on Nicaraguan soil. To date, in spite of cajoling by companies dedicated to polluting which do exist toxic waste has not crossed our borders. But the danger mounts daily.

The Feared "Clean Sludge"

The great metropoli of the North, in addition to producing mountains of trash, need veritable oceans of water to keep functioning: water for households, hospitals, industry and agriculture.
Clean water is life itself. And dirty water is... Dirty water runs into the sewage system, dragging with it all the garbage, dirt, lead that cars belch out onto the streets, mercury, heavy particulates in gasses fixed to the soil by rainfall, hyperactive detergents... You can find almost anything in these torrents of dirty water.

In the United States, this water is collected in pipes where it undergoes a process that sends it back out almost as clean and clear as it had once been. It is then sent back into the natural cycle where the purification process is finished. But this clean water leaves residues, a thick sludge where the worst of the worst is concentrated: sewage mud, euphemistically called "clean sludge."

For a long time, this sludge was loaded onto huge barges and flung to the bottom of the sea. Or it was dumped in the Texas desert. In some areas of the United States, it was used as fertilizer for pastures where cattle grazed, but the animals died by the thousands. And the ones that survived suffered serious liver problems.

Somebody also came up with the idea of using it as land fill. So they tried it in Austin, Texas, where a stadium was to be constructed. Because people don't spend extended periods of time in stadiums, the argument was that, even if the sludge was somewhat contaminated, it wouldn't present serious health problems. But the contamination levels were so high that not even the stadium could use the sludge. So that project was abandoned, too.

On July 1, 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited continuing the tests that were being carried out on this toxic sludge. Thus began a search in earnest for a country willing to accept this "little gift."

Along with Indonesia and Haiti, one of the "favorite" nations is Nicaragua, where few people understand the threat of toxic waste and where, due to the crushing poverty, garbage can be traded for some little trinket that pleases the contamination victims. In Nicaragua there is no institution with exclusive decision making power on ecological issues. The Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA) is designed in such a way that it is both a player and an umpire in ecological issues and does not even have final decision making power.

The toxic waste business has already begun successfully in a number of countries of the South, on terms very favorable to the North. For example, to get a permit to dump millions of tons of toxic waste in Gabon, one of these ghost companies paid the president of that African nation the modest sum of $20,000.

A Dirty, and Profitable, Business

Since the change of government in Nicaragua, a number of proposals have been made for opening the country's borders to toxic waste. Here we address only the most recent ones. In 1992, a supposedly Nicaraguan firm appeared in Managua under the appealing name of Tierra Nueva, S.A. (New Land), with the objective of importing "clean sludge." The company "exists," but has no office or official registration, only a telephone number, and nobody who answers it knows anything. It is what's known as a "briefcase company." Everything indicates that the Nicaraguan capital behind this enterprise has close links to the Chamorro government.

The bid made by Tierra Nueva is interesting: 100,000 metric tons of toxic sludge would be dumped in Nicaragua monthly over the next 20 years, for a grand total of 24 billion tons. The project's plan would be to dump the sludge in Puerto Cabezas, in Nicaragua's sparsely populated Atlantic Coast region. There it would be combined with pine chips, which, according to the businessmen, would facilitate the organic decomposition of the different elements in the sludge. This combination would be turned into fertilizer for the soils in the areas cut to make the chips, guaranteeing the rapid growth of newly planted pines. The disease and the medicine thus come hand in hand.

A plant would be installed with the capacity to produce 1,500 million tons of this organic fertilizer annually, which would provide a surplus sufficient to use throughout the rest of the country and even export to third countries. The construction and production of the plant would generate 500 jobs, helping to alleviate unemployment in the region, which affects more than 80% of the coast's economically active population.

Another element that makes this project attractive is the commitment that, for every ton of "clean sludge" coming into the country, two dollars would be earmarked for cleaning up Lake Managua. To this end, a bank account under the name "Xolotlán" (the indigenous name for Lake Managua) would be opened for the monthly deposit of $200,000 making it the richest lake in the world. This money would be entirely invested, according to Tierra Nueva, in decontaminating the lake. Among other activities to this end, different varieties of bacteria that feed off the wastes currently contaminating the lake would be imported.

To ensure that the sludge does not contain substances dangerous to human health, the EPA commits itself to oversee each container of sludge before sealing it. All containers would enter Nicaragua with EPS seals and securities.

Murky Waters

As presented by Tierra Nueva, the project appears to have no problems, and the Ministry of Economy and Development seems to be leaning in favor of accepting it. MAN, however, is brimming with criticisms. Sludge doesn't only contain household waste.
The very dangerous materials that many companies work with end up in the domestic sewage network so the companies pay less. Even if there were absolute control over these industrial wastes, it would not impede the spilling of incalculable quantities of lead, mercury, cadmium, greases and other components from vehicular emissions onto the streets of the large cities.

All these substances are very dangerous to human health. Also included is asbestos, which produces cancer. Its use is now prohibited in the United States, which means the substance will have to be eliminated from all industrial processes within a certain period of time. There are also virtually indestructible plastics, as well as any number of other damaging substances that, sooner or later, end up in the sewage system and in the "clean sludge". These are the wastes that they want to dump on the forests of the Atlantic Coast.

These forests, which spread over 200,000 hectares, are one of Nicaragua's most beautiful and extensive forest reserves. And they protect a zone with the country's most plentiful rainfalls and important river basins in the country. The shallow soil cover could be easily and irretrievably lost.

Regardless of the treatments the sludge is subjected to, it will always be toxic. It will poison the water and forests forever, with no way to correct it. In addition, huge areas of forest will have to be sacrificed to convert the sludge into fertilizer, which will be determined by the company sending the sludge.
There is no reason to assume that it is particularly interested in protecting Nicaragua's natural resources. Logically, it will use the wood that is the cheapest and closest, not necessarily the most suitable.

Do we even need this fertilizer? The city of Managua produces 270 tons of organic waste daily which, properly processed, could provide a sufficient amount of organic fertilizer to satisfy all the needs of the country's national agriculture system.
The job creation argument is not really convincing either. It's true that there is no work on the Atlantic Coast. But the jobs are drying up as a result of the structural adjustment programs imposed by state institutions that now want to dump garbage in Nicaragua. The employment problem in Puerto Cabezas will not be resolved with 500 job posts. And as long as this zone doesn't become a toxic dungheap, there will be jobs for fishermen, who will know that the fish they catch are good, and not a chunk of poison wrapped in a shell or scales.

The EPA's guarantee that no dangerous material will come to Nicaragua does not seem particularly reliable, given that our country has no laboratories or analytical capacity to verify what it certifies. The EPA and Tierra Nueva know that very well.

In the final analysis, if the sludge is as beneficial as they are trying to make us believe, why don't they keep it in the United States?

Full of Viruses

There is another particularly dangerous element in sludge: the bacteria and viruses from US hospitals. So the sludge will come to us full of concentrated wastes from the most dangerous patients those with AIDS, cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment, and those with other contagious illnesses barely even heard of in Nicaragua.

All these pathogenic micro organisms, which have lived in the North's cold environment, will come to the hot South mixed with heavy metals and other chemical materials, which would facilitate a mutation allowing them to adapt to an unknown environment and survive in it. That's the law of nature. There's little reason to think that the AIDS virus would undergo a mutation rendering it innocuous. What can be presumed is that if a pathogenic virus mutates, the new ones will be infinitely more noxious and resistant than those we have already discovered.

An historic case of a virus that was not dangerous but which, upon mutation, was transformed into a plague that is still taking a very high toll is Treponema pallidum, which produces syphilis. Syphilis was a not particularly serious illness among the indigenous peoples of the Americas until the Europeans took the virus back to Europe. There, in adapting to its new climate and reality, it suffered a mutation that scientists still don't know how to deal with today.

What could happen with the endless number of pathogenic entities that would come in this sludge? Who will take responsibility for looking for solutions and dealing with new and unknown diseases? Who will shed a tear for the agony and death suffered by the people on the Coast? Perhaps the white Boston businessmen or Wall Street bankers?
But, even if nothing like this happens, even if there are no mutations, the sludge on its own has already caused serious health problems in the areas it has been deposited. These include serious respiratory system illnesses, skin and liver diseases, blindness, different varieties of cancer, leukemia and a whole array of other problems.

An Accord in Search of Signers

During the XII Central American Presidential Summit, held in Panama in 1992, the assembled Presidents came to a regional agreement prohibiting the transport of toxic wastes through Central American territory. According to Annex 1, category Y 46, everything collected from household waste as well as sewage is considered toxic waste.

The wording of the accord states that it will take effect when at least three Central American countries have ratified it. That has not happened to date, and it seems unlikely that it will happen soon, since many of the region's countries are wrapped up in electoral processes.

Before this accord was proposed, a wonderful project was being promoted by the Costa Rican University for Peace. Its objective was that Central America and the Caribbean be declared Peace Zones as formally as Switzerland has declared itself neutral in times of war.

The director of this project is Dr. Fabio Castillo, at that time in exile and today Rector of the National University in El Salvador. The ambitious initiative proposed, among other things, an absolute prohibition on arms, toxic wastes and polluting products of any sort entering, remaining in, being manufactured in or leaving from Central American or Caribbean territory, including territorial waters. It is a very ambitious initiative, since that territory includes extensive coasts of the United States. In arguing for the importance of this initiative, Dr. Castillo pointed out the US fear has always been that its "backyard" could be used against it militarily a fear that has led it to invade both Central American and Caribbean countries. Nothing, insisted Castillo, would better guarantee its security than international law and this peace accord.

Along with other knowledgeable jurists and geographers from the area, Castillo worked for a number of years preparing and presenting the initiative to the international community, and beginning negotiations and seeking signatories that would make the accord possible. In mid 1989, everything was almost ready; only two or three months were needed before presenting the Initiative for the Declaration of a Peace Zone in Central America and the Caribbean to the world. But four years have now passed and no one knows anything about the project.

Meanwhile, Central America and the Caribbean are becoming more polluted by the day. Boats loaded with toxic waste navigate the region's waters, crossing the Panama Canal in what constitutes a threat not only to the region, but to the entire planet.

Gone with the Wind?

The North has been polluting the South in a number of ways for many years now. Most recently, it has been turning the South into its trash heap. Many poor countries are receiving toxic waste in their region, selling off their ecological wealth for a string of pretty beads. They embrace death thinking they can easily transform it into life.

And the countries of the North send their garbage far from home, taking advantage of the ignorance in our poor nations and the greed of those who hold power. Perhaps the North thinks that if it tosses its garbage far enough from its own borders, it won't have to deal with the problems of contamination.

But winds travel without passports, the rain needs no visa and you can't put a customs post in the air. Everything takes place on this single planet, and no matter how far away from home toxic waste is thrown, sooner or later it will come back to stain the immaculate halls of all the White Houses.

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