By Stephen Robson
PERTH — Severely embarrassed by the international furore over the toxic waste ship, Maria Laura, the Australian government is under strong pressure to ban toxic waste exports. The controversial shipment was organised by Pacific Environmental Corporation (PEC) with the approval of federal environment minister Ros Kelly, but now Kelly has revoked PEC's export licence.
Last May, the Australian government became the 20th government to sign the Basel Convention regulating trade in toxic waste. The Australian decision gave the convention sufficient signatories to make it international law. The Maria Laura incident now makes Australia the first country to break the convention.
Many governments think there should be a complete ban on international waste shipments.
An inquiry into intractable wastes, set up by the federal, NSW and Victorian governments, recommended on July 10 that there should be no more exports of such wastes.
But things started to go wrong for Ros Kelly at the end of July, when the Maria Laura left Fremantle with 18 tonnes of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The first port of call was Cape Town.
Contrary to the Basel Convention, the Australian government failed to notify South African authorities of the nature of the cargo prior to its arrival. The ship had to leave port hastily after environmentalists and unionists began investigating.
The Maria Laura then headed for France, where its cargo was bound for a toxic waste incinerator near Lyon. Unions blocked attempts to unload the cargo at Le Havre.
From Le Havre, the ship moved on to Antwerp in Belgium, where the cargo was offloaded only to be impounded by the Belgian government, which threatened to return it to Australia. Greenpeace activists chained themselves to the cargo to prevent it being sent overland to France.
The French government has now agreed to accept the present cargo for incineration, but will ban any future such shipments.
Ros Kelly says the company, rather than the government, has violated the Basel convention. Yet it was Kelly who renewed PEC's export licence in July for a further six months, and it is the government that is supposed to notify transit ports.
A second shipment of toxic wastes was due to leave Brisbane in late August, but Kelly intervened to have the seven containers held at the port.
Alastair Harris, trade union liaison officer for Greenpeace, says the waste "should be stored in above-ground, purpose-built storage facilities" until suitable technology is available to safely dispose of the PCBs.
This is approach is already making progress, Harris told Green Left Weekly. BCD Technologies in Brisbane is working on a new process to break down the PCBs into less harmful chemicals.
The issue is being widely discussed in the trade union movement, Harris says. The WA Trades and Labour Council is about to consider an urgency motion condemning the waste trade and calling on the federal and state governments to ban future exports. The meeting is likely to approve a campaign against further shipments. The ACTU executive is also expected to discuss the matter in the near future.