MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has done a complete turn-around, saying the illegally exported garbage from Canada is not toxic and hazardous after all.
In a statement, the Canadian embassy "welcomes the recent determination by the DENR that contents of the containers shipped to the Philippines by a private Canadian company are neither toxic nor hazardous."
DENR Environment Management Bureau Director Jonas Leones confirmed to Rappler that a Waste Analysis and Characterization Study (WACS) the agency conducted showed the garbage is not toxic and hazardous.
They concluded the container vans instead carried "a mix of plastics and residual waste."
In earlier statements, the DENR said the 50 container vans from Canada violated Republic Act 6969 (Toxic Substance and Hazardous Wastes and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990).
Ang NARS Representative Leah Paquiz expressed disappointment in the DENR's inconsistency.
"What kind of political will do we have? They say one thing and then take it back," said Paquiz during press conference on Thursday, March 26.
The study conducted by the DENR is not enough to prove the waste is safe, said BAN Toxics executive director Richard Gutierrez.
He said a WACS only classifies waste according to kind. It does not analyze the safety of the substances that compose the waste.
For instance, the used adult diapers found in some of the vans may contain feces or urine that carry infectious bacteria or diseases – substances that can only be discovered through more comprehensive studies, such as a leachate test.
"A leachate test will tell you the constituent matter of the garbage. Essentially with the WACS, you only say, 'This is paper, this is a notebook, this is a pen.' But what's more important is, is this paper made of lead? Does this paper contain persistent organic pollutants?"
Initial reports of the contents of the vans listed mixed garbage, including non-recyclable plastics, waste paper, household waste, and used adult diapers.
Moreover, the WACS assessed only 10 of the 50 container vans. Only a total of 18 vans have been opened because of costs and health risks.
To generalize that all contents of the container vans are safe based on a sampling of just 10 is "premature and risky," said Gutierrez.
But Leones told Rappler it was the Bureau of Customs that asked to test only a random sampling of the container vans. The court case filed against the Philippine-based importer of the garbage prevents the DENR from opening the other vans since they are considered evidence.
He said a motion was filed by the Department of Justice last February 17 asking the courts to allow the DENR to examine the vans.
Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler
The 50 container vans shipped to the Manila port separately since June 2013 have been a financial and health burden to the Philippines.
The Department of Health has had to spend P18,000 ($402) per opened container van to disinfect them since some garbage residue has reportedly been leaking out of some of the vans.
According to green groups, the Philippines is also losing an income of P144,000 ($3,200) a day due to the space being occupied by the container vans.
In total, they have cost the government a total of P87 million ($2 million), estimated the activist groups.
The Canadian embassy has strongly asserted that it sees the issue as a "private commercial matter" between the Canadian exporting company and Philippine importing company. (READ: BOC sues firm for dumping Canada's waste in PH)
It also said the Canadian government has no domestic laws to compel the Canadian company to take the container vans back to Canada.
But Gutierrez says the issue is very much a public one.
"Waste dumping is imbued with public interest. It's on the same level as endangered species trade, illegal drug trade."
Furthermore, Canada and the Philippines are both parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, an international agreement which regulates the dumping or trade of garbage from one country to another.
Thus, though Canada may not have domestic laws requiring the re-export of the garbage, international laws bind them to do so.
Disappointed with government action, BAN Toxics and other green groups are planning to make a Basel Delegate Alert – written communication with all countries party to the Basel Convention and the Basel Convention Secretariat.
The alert will "notify the Basel Convention parties of continuing violations of the convention," said Gutierrez.
They aim to reach all countries by May, when the party states will gather in Geneva for a general assembly. There are 181 countries that are parties to the convention.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has said it would only take the Basel Convention track as a last resort.
But Gutierrez said civil society organizations are free to make the alert with or without the support of the government.
He thinks Philippine government agencies are backing down on the issue because of President Benigno Aquino III's planned state visit to Canada later this year. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also expected to attend the APEC Summit this November.
Another option being explored by Philippine government agencies and the Canadian embassy is the processing of the illegal waste in the Philippines with all costs to be shouldered by Canada.
But Paquiz does not buy it.
"If we compromise, other countries will do it to us and they will also compromise with us. We don't want to be a dumping site of the world. Canada, open your ears, open your eyes and take your garbage away. Respect our dignity and respect our rights. We love our country and this is the only country we have."
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.