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Europe: New Accord Limits Ocean Dumping

Munich, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After years of negotiation, Europe has reached an agreement intended to reduce dumping of radioactive material and other hazardous waste into the Atlantic Ocean. But some critics say the agreement leaves too many loopholes for industries and governments.

This latest agreement on maritime pollution was drawn up by the 15 European countries that are signatories to the convention on protecting the northeast Atlantic. They are Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

The convention's goal is to reduce discharges of radioactive and hazardous substances into the sea to near zero by the year 2020. It was signed by the environment ministers at a meeting in Portugal in July.

In Germany, where the green movement of environmental activists is particularly influential, the Environment Ministry says the most blatant forms of dumping in the Atlantic already are banned by international agreements. The ministry says the new measure is aimed at industries and entities that have found ways to avoid the earlier controls.

A ministry spokesman says the dumping problem is significant. In his words: "The northeast Atlantic is something of a garbage bin. Europe's three nuclear processing plants in Britain and France release radioactive discharges into the sea. There is also the fact that thousands of tons of pesticides are sprayed into the environment around the northeast Atlantic each year. And the North Sea is home to about 450 oil and gas platforms which also discharge wastes into the sea."

The German Environment Ministry says that wastes dumped into the sea can damage the health of ordinary people. The most obvious example is radioactive wastes. Researchers have found that lobsters caught near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in northern England contain substantially more than the recommended safety levels of technetium 99, a radioactive isotope.

Other health hazards come from synthetic chemicals dumped into the Atlantic by industry. Some scientists believe these can disrupt hormone systems. There have been reports linking the chemical wastes to problems ranging from various forms of cancer to childhood hyperactivity and learning disorders.

Disused oil rigs are most obviously a threat to shipping, but they also pollute the water. Three years ago an international outcry developed over a Shell oil company decision to dump into the sea an off-shore oil rig weighting 14,500 tons. As a result of the protests, the Shell company agreed to have the rig dismantled and recycled on land.

The agreement signed in Portugal in July is supposed to cover all these issues, but critics say the text leaves room for evasion by those who don't want to honor it. For example, the agreement calls for the discharge of both radioactive and hazardous wastes to be reduced to close to zero within 22 years. But it adds that this agreement is dependent on the technical feasibility of achieving that goal.

Critics at the Dutch headquarters of the Greenpeace environmental organization say this creates a loophole which could enable the British and French governments to keep open their nuclear reprocessing plants. Still, even Greenpeace thinks the agreement is an important step towards eventually forcing the closure of these plants.

A positive view comes from the German Environment Ministry, which says that the technical challenge of reaching the target will be a stimulus to industry, and have the added advantage of creating jobs.

The agreement as signed also attempts to take care of the problem of dumping disused oil rigs at sea. It says that this never should happen again, but then adds provisions which could allow companies to get around the ban in some circumstances. For instance, it says that on a case-by-case basis exemptions could be made to allow the foundations of oil platforms weighing more than 10,000 tons to be dismantled at sea. At present there are 41 of these huge oil rigs in the northeast Atlantic.

(This is the third of a five-part series dealing with environmental issues in Europe, East and West.)