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Report: U.S. Lax on Toxic Exports

September 18, 2008

By Julie Schmit

U.S. regulators aren’t enforcing even limited laws against exporting toxic waste from used electronics, the Government Accountability Office said Wednesday.

The GAO report is the first time the government has come down hard on toxic e-waste exports, activists say. They can expose workers in poor countries to lead and other hazards.

A “substantial” amount of e-waste goes to China and India, the GAO said. There, it’s often disposed of unsafely via open-air burning of wire to recover copper and acid baths to loosen metals.

Only exports of cathode-ray tubes — used in TVs and PCs — are regulated. CRTs can contain up to 4 pounds of lead, which can cause neurological damage. Even they are being improperly exported, the GAO said. The Environmental Protection Agency has “done little” to enforce an 18-month-old rule restricting their export, the report said.

The rule requires exporters to notify the EPA and get consent from receiving countries. But Hong Kong officials have turned back 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs from the U.S., the GAO said. In one case, officials sent CRTs back to Los Angeles, and the exporter shipped them back to Hong Kong again.

The report “hits EPA very hard,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. He compared the EPA’s enforcement with putting up speed-limit signs, but “no one writes any tickets.” Barbara Kyle of activist group Electronics TakeBack Coalition says exports should be banned to poor countries with poor environmental laws and enforcement. The European Union has similar rules.

EPA spokesman Timothy Lyons says the EPA has made improving compliance a “priority.” It’s also launched 20 investigations, issued one complaint and settled one case, he says.

The EPA has estimated the U.S. generates 2.6 million tons of e-waste annually, an amount that’s likely to grow.

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