Customs inquiry into secret trade in CFCs

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Customs officers and the Government have begun an investigation into illegal Russian imports of the CFC chemicals which destroy the earth's protective ozone layer.

There is mounting evidence that thousands of tonnes of CFCs - chlorofluorocarbons - are being smuggled into Europe, including Britain, in defiance of an international treaty and European Union laws. The environmentally destructive chemicals are used in refrigeration plant in shops, pubs, restaurants, factories and in air conditioning.

The thinly dispersed ozone gas high in the upper atmosphere absorbs ultraviolet light which damages plants and plankton and can cause eye cataracts and skin cancer. CFCs take the lead among a variety of man-made chlorine and bromine containing chemicals which damage the layer.

CFC smuggling has already been well documented in the United States. Customs investigators and the US Environmental Protection Agency have detected hundreds of tonnes of CFCs being smuggled in through Miami. There have been several prosecutions with jail terms handed down.

In Europe, companies like ICI that manufacture new CFC substitutes which do not harm the ozone layer accuse governments of failing to investigate or crack down on the smuggling. They believe the illicit imports are costing them millions of pounds in lost sales.

They point to Russia as the prime source because that country has opted out of a key part of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty for phasing out CFCs and other industrial chemicals which harm the ozone layer.

Russia has publicly declared that it will not meet an earlier commitment to phase out CFC production by the beginning of next year. It pleads poverty; total costs for replacing the chemicals with ozone-friendly substitutes runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. According to industry sources in Britain, Russia has the capacity to produce at least 100,000 tonnes a year but its own demand is nowhere near that.

The European Union banned production, but not use, of CFCs from 1 January this year, with some small and controlled exemptions. The refrigeration industry had been expecting the price of CFC refrigerant fluids to rise rapidly after the ban came into force due to stocks running down. But the market price has remained flat or risen only slowly, indicating ample supplies. Further evidence of smuggling from Russia comes in the fact that the price of R502, a type of CFC refrigerant not manufactured there, has risen rapidly in Britain this year as stocks expire.

A Department of the Environment source said its officials and Customs officers were investigating one shipment of chemicals after being alerted to a huge discrepancy in import figures by manufacturers of the CFC substitutes. The European Commission gave permission for 500 tonnes of CFCs to be imported from Russia into Britain this year; the chemicals can be legally imported for recycling or destruction provided a licence is obtained. Yet according to trade statistics 3,800 tonnes of CFCs have already been imported into the United Kingdom from Russia in the first six months of this year.

Even if smuggling which breaches the Montreal Protocol and European law is discovered in Britain, the Government has not yet implemented the regulations which set out penalties and how offenders will be prosecuted. Nick Campbell, regulatory affairs manager with ICI, said: ``We believe there is a black market happening across Europe.''

Richard Alger, chairman of HRP, one of the largest distributors of refrigerants in Britain, said: `There's still a lot of CFCs sloshing about in Britain and one can only believe some of them must be unlicensed imports.''

The environmental pressure group Greenpeace said it was investigating alleged CFC smuggling in Britain, Germany and Greece. The Department of the Environment source said: ``There probably is smuggling but it's not as big as they [the manufacturers of CFC alternatives] make out.''

Over the past eight years there have been tough international agreements on curbing or banning chemicals which deplete the ozone layer. Even so, scientists forecast the damage will worsen until the turn of the century before recovery commences. Since the early 1980s an ozone "hole" has been opening above the Antarctic at each Southern Hemisphere spring. This year it has begun to form earlier and developed more rapidly than usual. (Graphic omitted)