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Environment : Europe Has Toxic Troubles : * Waste dump woes in the United States pale beside those on the Continent, and the situation is getting worse.

May 28, 1991|JOEL HAVEMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELLERY, Belgium — Christian Kinard, who moved his wife and two children to this picturesque rural village nine years ago to escape the noise and pollution of Brussels, began to think he had made a mistake when "this horrible smell filled my house whenever I opened the window of my living room."

For Kinard's neighbor, Marcel Van Luyten, the trouble was in his back-yard well, where his once crystal-clear spring water turned a nauseous yellow-orange at just about the same time his trees, vegetables and rabbits began dying.

Neither had to look far for the cause. At a rate of up to one every three minutes in the mid-1980s, trucks had been dumping noxious potions of industrial waste into an old sand quarry a mile or two away from the little village of 650 people. The dump was open on top, and all that lay between it and the ground water was a layer of sand.

Mellery's dangerous brew, which included such potent carcinogens as benzene, has not killed anyone or even, as far as can be proved, made anyone sick. But townspeople are convinced that there is a link between the landfill and everything from skin disorders to two cases of birth defects, and a national health institute found chromosomal irregularities in 40 of the 51 residents it tested.

That the Mellery landfill was allowed to happen reflects an unhappy fact about not only Belgium but most of Western Europe: As terrible as is the toxic waste problem in the United States, Europe's is far more serious still.

Thousands of potentially leaky and dangerous dumps dot Western Europe's charming rural landscape. Just in Wallonia, the French-speaking half of tiny Belgium, Environment Minister Guy Lutgen fears that there may be another 400 Mellerys, although not all may be so noxious.

"The United States has up to 10 years more experience in dealing with toxic dumps," says Jean Marbehant, chief of environmental policy in Lutgen's ministry, which ordered the Mellery landfill closed in 1989. "With the help of countries such as the U.S. and Japan, we would still need two or three years to catch up."

Europe has nothing like the U.S. Superfund, the 11-year-old program that, at a cost of $10 billion so far, has completed the cleanups of 70 of America's worst toxic waste dumps and begun work on another 309.

Nor, for now, does most of Europe even keep track of what is being dumped into its landfills. "I'm constantly shocked at the level of the debate here," says Jim Puckett, an American who is Greenpeace's waste trade coordinator in Amsterdam.

Recently, however, Europe has shown signs of confronting the problem.

The 12-nation European Community is considering a bewildering array of regulations to control the generation, transportation and disposal of hazardous industrial wastes. None is more potentially far-reaching than a proposal to hold chemical companies and other toxic waste generators legally liable for the effects of their wastes on the public health, even if it is someone else's leaky landfill that exposes the public to those wastes.

Some countries, notably the Netherlands, have already imposed stiff regulations of their own. One effect has merely been the export of hazardous wastes to places with weaker controls; many of the trucks that unloaded their poisonous cargo into the Mellery sand pit, for example, bore Dutch license plates.

To prevent a repetition, Wallonia has passed one law requiring that toxic wastes be treated before they are dumped and another that bans the import of some hazardous wastes. The European Community, even as it presses for tougher regulation of toxic waste dumps in its 12 member countries, has challenged the import ban in the European Court of Justice as a restraint of trade.

"Sometimes we can't figure out the EC," says Wallonia's Marbehant. "At the same time that they're trying to regulate waste dumps more tightly, they're trying to make it harder for us."

Without protections such as Belgium's, Greenpeace's Puckett fears that waste will cascade from the rich countries such as Germany and the Netherlands to their poor cousins--Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Any hit parade of Western Europe's most infamous dumps would have to include the following:

* Almaden, Spain. Greenpeace says at least 25 chemical companies from 11 countries, including the United States, dumped 11,000 tons of mercury-laced wastes during the 1980s in a mine in this remote district of central Spain.

* Montchanin, France. Admired by experts in the 1980s as Europe's most modern facility, the dump was closed in 1988 after dioxin, a potent carcinogen contained in waste smuggled from Germany, leaked into the city's soil, air and water.

* Vorketzin, Germany. Since 1974, West Germany has dumped millions of tons of wastes at this site in the former East Germany, creating a 50-foot-high mountain of garbage. Nearby ground water has been contaminated with ammonia, nitrates and phosphates.

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