A report from a detective agency - spezialised in the issue of toxic waste

Investigation and files, media and campaigns. Strategies of Andreas Graf BERNSTORFF

Research and files, media and campaigns

In 1992 and 1994 Greenpeace had uncovered, approximate 350 tons (corresponding to a freight train) of obsolete pesticides of German origin were stored in simple unsecured buildings or barns in Romania and Albania. Some barrels were completely rusted and leaked. Toxic waste had been exported there, in order to spare costs of the expensive disposal in Germany. Under pressure from Greenpeace, the Federal government was finally forced to bring back - with a great deal of media interest - the dangerous cargo to Germany to dispose it properly.

These "return to sender" actions were public highlights of our "campaign against toxic waste exports". Now the campaign can be presented in all its facets. After ten years can be described, how a great environmental policy success could be achieved with an undercover investigation. Revenge is not to be feared anymore. Our activists are out of danger. The success was not to achieve otherwise. But the successful campaign is non-repeatable. We will reveal nothing, which could weaken us. But we are happy to share our experiences, to inspire next researchers.

The Problem

What was the problem? In 1992 toxic waste was exported from wealthy industrialized countries into not so rich countries of the world. At that time, Germany was the leading exporter in the world. After the borders of Poland were opened in 1988 (and also subsequently the borders of its neighboring countries in Central-Eastern Europe) - the first "investors" were German exporters of toxic waste. In principle, we all knew this. However, it had to be proven again and again that massive toxic waste exports after Central and Eastern Europe came from Germany. The legally unregulated exports were then legal, but could be classified as "criminal" in a moral sense. Therefore Greenpeace insisted on a clear prohibition of such practices.

First Information

  1. An East Berlin backpacker returns from the Romanian Hermannstadt / Sibiu and passes a letter to the Greenpeace branch in Berlin. It is a letter to the editor of the Romanian local newspaper and was written by worried scientists (chemists and medical doctors). The writers express concern about planned toxic landfill sites in their region. These plans of EU countries could have a negative impact on the region. Company names are not mentioned. The paper ends up in a file named "toxic waste exports".

  2. Someone is calling via car phone. He claims 2,000 tons of obsolete pesticides from Saxony are to bring to Romania. The project would be already underway. The motive of the caller becomes apparent as revenge. Originally he was involved in the export project, but was ousted and cheated. Caution! No good source! But the phone number is registered.

  3. Greenpeace discovers in a shed of a West German train station obsolete pesticides, paints and coatings of East German origin. These goods seemed to be prepared for export. The police are informed and the news broadcast "ZDF heute journal" shows our pictures. The planned export was stopped.

  4. Greenpeace discovers in a potato warehouse in the East German town of Daehre obsolete pesticides, which seems to be exported by a West German company. Greenpeace activists park a truck (decorated with a banner saying: "environmental protection directly") in front of the warehouse. Greenpeace secured the place and invited the media. Greenpeace aroused a great deal of interest of the media. Among other things the headline of the tabloid "Bild am Sonntag" read: "The Westerners poison the East now!"

The message is not clear enough - we need new approaches

The reporting of the media is very good. Everything nevertheless goes wrong. We want to prove that toxic waste exports which were brought to Eastern Europe must be banned. But the media is limited to the current scandal. Journalists are not focussed on the real problem. They just describe what they see and smell at the waste dumps in Germany. Although they ask about a possible contamination of the groundwater and health problems because of these temporary stores. But with our fundamental concern, the problem of systematic export of toxic waste from rich to poor countries, we do not achieve their attention yet. Obviously we need new pictures. I had learned in an earlier conflict with the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg about toxic waste exports to Turkey, how to escalate such a dispute bilaterally. While German journalists dealing with the issue at local level, I was trying to spread the issue abroad: We gave the story to the Turkish daily newspaper “Hürryiet”, and the theme was taken up in its German edition. I If such reports declined in Turkey, I revealed in Germany new facts of toxic waste exports which arouse in Turkey interest again. The method worked. We needed alliances and were supported e.g. by the German public TV station WDR, where a number of employees are of Turkish origin.

First procurement of information

I call the international directory assistance and ask for the keyword "newspaper" in Romanian Hermannstadt / Sibiu. There newspapers of the German-speaking minority must exist, including journalists, with whom I can communicate. In my experience it is difficult to communicate on English in Romania. The directory assistance provides me with the phone number of a sports journalist of the "Sibiu newspaper." It turns out that he knows nothing, but his wife is very interested in environmental issues and is working for the "Carpathian Rundschau" (5000 readers). It becomes apparent that she had already even collected some documents. Four weeks later, both visited me in my office in Heidelberg and we exchanged information. There seems to be a massive export of toxic waste from Germany to Romania. Federal and state authorities had knowledge of these exports as well as Customs and border police. How to proceed? We phone the unknown person, who had previously informed us about a waste export. Can he tell us more about the places from where the exports start? He is no longer in this business, but identifies a region in Saxony, where these exports be prepared in certain warehouses.

According to our previous experiences we should not just identify interim storages of toxic waste. To prove that exports take place we must document the moves towards foreign countries . Now we can count on partners abroad, who will respond properly.

The plan

Thus arises the following plan: We discover where toxic waste is stored watch its removal. When we stop the transport at the border we have the proof. This plan is risky:

  • In the event that we are not able to stop the truck with the toxic waste at the border, we would have done no more than simply documented the export. But we had not prevented the export. One could even say that we have tolerated it. That is why perhaps we can not give up at the border.
  • If we can not stop the truck at the border, we will follow him to his destination, and start from there the public unveiling. This can fail probably.
  • We have e.g. not for each activist who is participating in this action, visas for all eligible transit or destination countries.
  • It is also uncertain whether the visas can be purchased at the border.
  • We can have a breakdown or an accident. Or a creek through which the truck can go is too deep for us. Or we will be stopped by the allies of the exporters or by real or false policemen.
  • The trucks could be driven into a guarded premises - and we have to stay out.
  • We could arrive at the final destination of the delivery, without to be able to communicate – because there is neither a fax nor a telephone connection.

How can this be justified? We accept the risk to be perhaps only witnesses of the crossing of the border by the truck. And we also accept all the other risks.

Agent No.1

Someone has to appear as a racketeer of toxic waste in order to discover an interim storage location: A 30-year-old Greenpeace researcher, disguised as a "young entrepreneur", is equipped with a sleek BMW. The car is provided with two antennas: one for the radio - the other for the phone. Car phones were then rare and expensive. The "businessman" looks up warehouses which he can rent for the temporary storage of "pesticides". He logs in after three days: "I have found three warehouses. I might rent them. They are all empty and rather uninteresting. But now someone told me: "I've got something to rent that you can not see yet, because there is still stuff in there. But on Monday it will be transported after Romania.” Our man replied that he only wanted to test the facilities and immediately wanted to come by. The trick works. Our "businessman" is in the warehouse in Saxony and collapses nearly because of the toxic stench of rotten barrels of obsolete pesticides. Even a delivery address in Romania he was able to identify: Alexandru Dan in Hermannstadt / Sibiu. The address turns out as an inconspicuous house.

Change of Scene: Agent No.2

Now others must become active: Our East German colleagues at the Greenpeace branch in Berlin were equipped with a Wartburg station wagon, sleeping bags, cameras and invisible cell phone and position themselves in front of the warehouse. They brought along a banner saying: "No toxic waste exports! Greenpeace". At the moment in which the trucks leave the warehouse to Romania, they should report and take up the pursuit.

Monday at 11 a.m., two trucks packed with toxic barrels leave the terrain and drive southbound after Czechoslovakia. I am the coordinator and lie with lumbago under my desk in Heidelberg. And I am going mad, because my colleagues once again drove into a dead zone for cell phones. They cannot know this.

First intervention: Scenario in Germany

The Wartburg follows the trucks. At the border crossing of Schoenberg, the Wartburg sets before the first truck and stops him. Our colleagues call the Border Police and unfold in front of cameras and journalists (which were informed previously) the banner. The Border Police confirmed: The load does not smell good and pesticide barrels are leaking. Therefore the transport should not take place. TV evening news reported: "Greenpeace reveals: German toxic waste was supposed to go to Romania." At last.

But now the real work starts. Instruction to the Wartburg Crew: Always keep an eye on the truck drivers.

The truck drivers are shocked and afraid of losing their jobs. But right now they are hungry and thirsty. Therefore they are invited for dinner and lots of beer. We would like to know, where exactly they are to deliver their cargo. At 11 p.m. rings my phone. The truck driver says (with a slurred voice), the cargo is addressed to a Mr. Alexandru Dan in Hermannstadt / Sibiu. We knew that before. But he can give me a detailed description to the final destination in Miercurea Sibiului / Reußmarkt. Based on the information, I can track the delivery route on the road map.

Scenario in Romania

Phone call to Romania: The address, a house, had already proven to be completely above suspicion.
Question: “What profession has Alexandru Dan?”
Answer: “He has managed warehouses of agricultural collectives, which are now resolved.”
Warehouses? That is Interesting.

A first flight to Hermannstadt / Sibiu. It turns out after just a short tour of the area: There are at least eight locations in the region in which toxic waste from Germany is stored: In open fields as well as in warehouses as well as in basements. An amateur photograph shows rusty, with toxic fluids filled barrels leaking in a flourishing apple orchard. This picture soon found its way to the media worldwide. Three days later we have our own video crew in Romania. We repeat the short tour and stage it with Romanian police vehicles including real police officers. I am sitting at the backseat and was conducting the driver: "Greenpeace points the way." The images are distributed worldwide via BBC. Colleagues from New Zealand and Canada congratulate by e-mail.

Second intervention:

We demand the return of the toxic waste as well as the proper disposal in Germany. Furthermore we require an export ban on state, national, at EU-level and internationally: No more toxic waste exports from developed countries to the Third World and to the transitional economies of Central Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This is our call since 1989 but none was listening. Even though we have the story completed, the Federal government distracts and does nothing. The reaction of the Romanian government was rude: Greenpeace wanted allegedly harm the country and destroy the growing tourism. Finally the Romanian government remained silent.

A second intervention is necessary: In January 1993, a number of toxic barrels burst due to freezing. Due to thaw, a contamination of the environment threatens. Greenpeace activists drove with trucks and rescue equipment to Sibiu and "clean up" the area. Finally the Romanian government in Bucharest thanks the "Greenpeace Company" for the safety of these toxic barrels.

The media

For the first time the general public recognizes our concerns. We literally “stepped out” of the milieu of churches and Third World groups, Greens, Young Socialists and relevant critical newspapers such as "Taz" or "Frankfurter Rundschau". Now we received invitations from police academies, provincial environment ministries, the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and disposal organizations. In addition, our subject is discussed in newspapers and magazines such as "Die Zeit", "Wirtschaftswoche", "Die Welt" and "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung". Even in the business section of the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" a Greenpeace statistics was printed with a graphic of toxic waste exports. I am convinced, this reporting had its impact on the decision-makers of the German Bundestag as well as the Federal government and ultimately contributed to rethink the problem.

I am called a "detective for toxic waste". It's flattering and annoys me at the same time. It is neither my intention nor my job to replace the police. We demanded a controlled ban and we reached this goal not because of our spectacular coup de main in Saxony and Romania. Much more had to be done.

Proof of competence

Since the very first day of our investigation (which started in December 1987), all information about toxic waste exports were collected and archived after a certain pattern. Finally we had prepared e.g. in a file "Romania - The poison attack" a number of case studies for investigators, journalists, environmental officials and diplomats on 61 pages. For each case the waste type was classified, mentioned were quantity, exporter, consignee, the competent licensing authority for exports and sometimes even the licensing authority for the import. The file contained also a presentation of international law, global politics and current state of the UN negotiations on the "Basel Convention" against exports of hazardous waste. Finally, we collected and published worldwide 600 case studies till 1994.

Without this proof of competence much would not have succeeded. Our competence enables us to convince journalists to intensify their current investigation of toxic waste in several places in Germany. We had 1500 newspaper articles about the subject of "toxic waste exports / Greenpeace" in just eleven months at that time.

Excursion No.1: Creation of sources / Protection of informants

If some confidential information shall be made accessibly to the public, one must put a wrong track (on a decent way). If we e.g. had knowledge of a special file of the police or other authorities - and had to cover our informants at the same time – the following is possible:

  • A reliable journalist is supplied with the information. He writes an article, which is now our official source. Hardly anybody will notice, that we know more or have published perhaps even more information. Since it was after the article of the journalist that our reports were published, perhaps we would have been able to gather further information.
  • One can initiate official statements and documents. The easiest way: A phone call to the chief of the appropriate authority. I report of calls which I would have received from residents who lived near a particular company. It smelled bad from a warehouse, and there were trucks transporting barrels out of this place. Another strategy is to inform the authorities about my current problem journalists, because I was not able to answer their questions. I wonder if somebody at the authority could help me perhaps. The preferred strategy is understatement: My conversation partner is the one who knows, I play a clueless questioner. The chances are good to have an answer.

If one wants to invest more effort and involve others, a "Letter from a Member of Parliament" can be created. E.g. a text with the following wording: "Is it true that this and that happened?" Of course previously a MP must be won for the project. The government must respond to the letter of a MP within two weeks. Because of a rule of courtesy the government does not responds publicly within two weeks following their response to the issue. During those two weeks, the MPs can present themselves with their initiative. Once the information is in the public, Greenpeace can quote the MPs and / or the government. It is now even more difficult to reconstruct where the information originally came.

With more effort, one can initiate a so-called "small request". This can be started by MPs of a Group. The more Groups are involved, the better. In case of a "small request" the government must respond even more accurate and in a timely manner. If the government asks for an extension of time, is it usually a good sign. It means, the government is either in trouble - or is preparing a particularly thoroughly response.

Sometimes initiatives of such kind develop their own dynamics and save a great deal of work, because others are involved in their own interest. This way of working is part of the general political work of Greenpeace.
What has been said about journalists writing for newspapers refers to all media. But there is a difference. You can often use a stronger wording and draw further conclusions e.g. in radio texts, than in print media - because access to a recording or a script is more difficult. However, if one is the author of the report, one has both.

All described methods can be combined in proper connection and hierarchy. But one would be ill advised, e.g. to initiate an MP letter and supply TV-news or the local radio station with information concerning the same issue - before the two-week period ended.

Excursion No.2: How to get information from the police?

Officials are not allowed to make any official secrets public. Investigators also cannot let information leak out to the public. An exception can happen at a police hearing.

Supposing an officials is interested to receive information from me - and I vice versa of him, a hearing is the right form of conversation. Before the official questions me, he must explain the context to me so that I can be a productive source. It is the only legal and ethical way how an official investigator can at least a little take me into his confidence. However, I must be willing to sign the interrogation record. Before the signature you have to decide, whether and how one wants to perpetuate itself in the internal network of police information.

Afterwards I can spread the newly acquired information as described above. Note: Information may only be published, if it does not interfere with the investigation – which has to be checked previously.

I warn to spread information too hasty. Contacts with the police have to be treated especially careful.
Contacts with the police are of interest to both sides, because investigators are often frustrated that their work does not lead to an indictment by the prosecutor.
Public prosecutors understandably tend to be very careful if the legal situation indicates that a success of a complaint at court is doubtful.

"Criminal" actions such as the export of toxic waste (which was not illegal at that time), led to collaborations between investigators who must remain silent, and environmental groups who protest and accuse publicly. Finally, both sides wanted to change the law – which succeeded.

Political work

We would not be heard by the Environment Committee of the German Parliament on waste exports as the only expert, without our undoubted competence and support of the media. We were invited by all Groups of the German Parliament. The Groups invite usually their own experts at such hearings. Since our uncovering of toxic waste exports, in Germany the competence concerning this issue is attributed to Greenpeace.

With our undisputed expertise, we (Greenpeace Germany) were also able to support firmly the political work of Greenpeace International at the United Nations in the committees of the Basel Convention against toxic waste exports.

The political work of Greenpeace on state and federal level as well as at the European Union as well as at about 40 environmental treaties of the United Nations around the world cannot be presented here. However, it is necessary to mention often publicly invisible "lobbying" activities. Because our small investigations, revealments and campaigns, must be compiled politically to all levels in a way that one day these activities will be unnecessary. We must formulate our objectives in international law as well as in the UN environmental conventions so that we no longer have to be those who have to grasp the nettle – the international community of states should commit itself to resolve outstanding issues instead. To achieve our goal as well as to stimulate further discussions, the covert investigation of toxic waste exports has been very helpful.

The success

The Conference of the Basel Convention decided in 1995 a ban on all exports of hazardous waste from OECD countries. The ban was enforced by criminal penalties. This decision was preceded by seven years of global campaigning against toxic waste exports from the rich OECD countries into the rest of the world, especially after the Third World and to Central and Eastern Europe. This ban came into force in the European Union (the main source of such exports) on January 1st, 1998 - but has been since 1994 largely respected. Though United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are not subject to the ban, they try to avoid (as far as possible) scandals of toxic waste exports. Seven years seems to be a long period of time, but in comparative international law research it is a very short period.

It is the advantage of "soft" international environmental law, that it already shows effect before it gets obligatory. States, whose authorities, enterprises and individual protagonists have come to terms with the inevitability of future global law and changed their behaviour, even without legal force and sanction instances. Toxic waste exports are only occasionally organized by unscrupulous traders. But systematic racketeering of toxic waste, that happened until the mid-nineties in a kind of legal grey area - since the decisions of the Basel Convention, they are a thing of the past.


Note: The latest and most comprehensive view of the problem, the campaign and its results with data, tables and case studies can be found in the loose-leaf collection "Waste Handbook" by Erich Schmidt Publishers, Delivery 5/02, May 2002: "export of hazardous wastes" origin and consequences of the Basel Convention from the perspective of Greenpeace authors Andreas BERNSTORFF and Judith KANTHAK (25 pages).