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The Poison Trail : How Environmental Cops Tracked Deadly Waste Across the Border

September 23, 1990|SARAH HENRY | Sarah Henry is a staff writer with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. This article is based, in part, on research for a CIR/Bill Moyers documentary, "Global Dumping Ground," scheduled to air Tuesday, Oct. 2, on PBS' "Frontline." Elana Rosen and Antonio Lopez provided additional research.

ON A MILD Southern California day in late October, 1988, California Highway Patrol "green cop" Sgt. Lance Erickson swung his unmarked Chevy into a parking lot in an industrial section of Garden Grove. The space was adjacent to the parking lot of the Laminating Co. of America, a firm that manufactures backings for circuit boards. Erickson's partner, CHP investigator Gary Hanson, was perched on a nearby rooftop, where he had a clear view of the firm's entrance and yard. The officers, members of the Los Angeles County Environmental Crimes Strike Force, had tailed Raymond Franco to this business. Now they waited to see what he would do next.

Between them, Erickson and Hanson had staked out hundreds of suspects, always on the lookout for the same thing: an "open window"--copspeak for the opportunity to catch someone committing a crime. In this case, the alleged crime was the illegal transport and disposal of hazardous materials: Franco was a suspected "wastelord," a trafficker in a hot Southern California commodity--toxic trash. It was now Day 2 of the surveillance, and the officers, armed with cameras, were a little restless: So far, Franco had done nothing suspicious, let alone criminal.

Then, as Erickson and Hanson watched from their vantage points, the window to the Franco case blew wide open. Franco and some helpers began loading obviously full 55-gallon barrels--the kind commonly used to store hazardous waste--into two enclosed trucks. They carefully covered the barrels with cardboard, wood and empty drums. By the time the men were done, the full barrels were completely out of sight. "The trucks were plated out of the country; all the labor was Mexican," Hanson explains. "It gave me the suspicion that (the barrels) might not be staying in the U.S."

Hanson, Erickson and other green cops in Southern California had long believed that some unscrupulous American companies and waste haulers were dumping their toxic waste south of the border. Pursuing smuggling cases, however, had proved to be all but impossible. Investigators needed a solid lead and compelling evidence, and, to get it, they needed the assistance and resources of agencies much bigger than the county strike force.

The two officers had scant time to consider the ramifications of what they were witnessing. They simply knew they were onto something . "We took over 300 photos," Erickson says. "I was throwing film up to Gary on the roof. It was amazing; it was developing right in front of our eyes."

As the trucks pulled out of the laminating plant yard, Erickson and Hanson scrambled for their cars and followed the trucks out onto the street.

U.S. LAW ENFORCEMENT officials predict that the clandestine export of hazardous waste will become the international crime of the 1990s--a problem as big as arms or drugs trafficking. The lethal byproducts of industrialization, they say, move across the globe on toxic trails that lead from the developed nations to an unknowing and ill-prepared Third World. Among the poison routes, one of the easiest to follow is Interstate 5, down the center of California to San Ysidro and across the border into Tijuana.

William Carter, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney specializing in environmental crimes, chooses his words carefully when he talks about the toxic-waste traffic to Mexico. Each day, more than 100,000 vehicles cruise down I-5 and cross the border. Carter is reluctant to guess how much toxic waste slips south. "I wouldn't call it a trickle. I wouldn't call it a flood. I think it's more of a steady stream," he says. When pushed, he will estimate perhaps tens of thousands of gallons a month.

Carter is sitting in his office in the county Hall of Records in downtown Los Angeles. On one wall, a reprint of a full-page newspaper advertisement, part of the punishment for one environmental offender, reads "I Got Caught." Like CHP officers Erickson and Hanson, Carter is a member of the Los Angeles County Environmental Crimes Strike Force--a kind of SWAT team drawn from about a dozen state and county agencies.

The problem, Carter says, is simple. Southern California produces about two-thirds of the state's toxic garbage. In 1988, almost 1 million tons of hazardous waste was produced in the region, according to state health department statistics. With landfills closing and disposal costs running as high as $1,000 a barrel, the area has become a toxic pressure cooker. For some, the temptation to dump waste illegally, both inside California and across the border, where regulations and enforcement are less stringent, is hard to resist. Dishonest waste haulers and companies, Carter adds, consider Mexico "a big trash can."

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