A Russian roulette

The main source of the illegal trade in ozone-gobbling chemicals, the mafia in Russia is now in the line of fire

By Fred Pearce
Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

a worldwide operation of smuggling chlorofluorocarbons (cfcs) and other ozone-eating chemicals in Europe and North America is undermining efforts to heal the ozone layer, claimed British environment minister John Gummer at a recent seminar in London. Identifying the Russian mafia as the main source of illegal cfcs, he said, "Those who smuggle this kind of contraband, kill people and threaten children's lives. They are in the same league as drug smugglers.

Industrialised countries had agreed to end production of cfcs, which are still widely used in air-conditioning systems and refrigeration plants for domestic use, by January 1996. But Russia failed to meet the deadline and, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (unep), is still running seven factories with a combined 1996 production quota of 52,700 tonne -- half for domestic use and half for export.

These factories are believed to be the main sources for an international smuggling racket involving some 30,000 tonne a year. This is enough to slow the healing of the ozone layer by several years. Last year, cfc smuggling was second only to drugs in Miami. But now the trade is global, Europe being a major destination, Duncan Brack of the Royal Institute of International Affairs said in the seminar.

Non-Russian sources are alleged to include cfcs manufactured in India and China, or manufactured legally in developed countries for sale to the developing world. Other markets include Australia and the Caribbean where, Brack claims, "so much illegal material is available, that it is impossible to sell legal cfcs at genuine prices."

This legal trade has allowed a racket to develop in illegal cfcs repackaged and mislabelled to disguise their true origins. The chemicals still find a ready market in the developed world because most owners of air-conditioning and refrigeration plants have not altered their equipments to use substitutes. A uk government report last August warned that "the relatively large quantities of cfcs available in the market is encouraging complacency among many end-users.

And since the us customs began to crack down on the trade in early 1995, prices in the us have risen 10-fold to around $600 per cylinder. But in Europe, prices have only risen four-fold since manufacture ended. Brack claimed that in Spain, where there are no penalties for trading in illegal cfcs, prices had fallen in 1996.

According to the us customs, the uk is a major destination and trans-shipment point for illegal Russian cfcs. But Gummer said that British customs had yet to stop a single consignment or make a single arrest. Brack warns that with increasing numbers of international environment treaties being agreed upon, "if the cfc problem cannot be tackled, this will be a clear signal that environmental crime is not taken seriously".

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