Criminals 'trading in toxic waste'

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SECURITY has been tightened along the Franco-German border to clamp down on what the authorities fear is a massive smuggling operation in illegal waste.

In the past 11 days, 15 lorries carrying dangerous hospital refuse hidden among normal household waste have been stopped by border police. The German Environment Minister, Klaus Topfer, warned of the dangers of the operations of an 'international rubbish Mafia, just as dangerous as arms and drugs traffickers'. His French counterpart, Segolene Royal, responded angrily and said her country 'did not wish to become Europe's rubbish bin'.

Charges were laid against three people, all French, at the weekend - the head of a waste control company, the director of a recycling company and the owner of an abandoned quarry - but despite this, the cross-border traffic in toxic waste showed little sign of ending as another three trucks were stopped at the beginning of the week. In them police found used syringes, blood packages and dialysis equipment mixed in with yoghurt pots.

'We have discovered the tip of an iceberg,' said the state prosecutor, Beatrice Dupuis. 'It is possible that we are dealing with a massive international rubbish smuggling organisation.' According to Greenpeace in Germany, much of the export of toxic waste is in the hands of 'organised criminal networks'. French police said at least one lorry had dumped its cargo in a disused quarry near Neuilly-sur-Suize.

Most of the waste discovered has come from Berlin. The embarrassed city authorities admitted that 'mistakes had been made', but insisted that when the waste containers left the city there was nothing toxic inside. The transport and recycling companies are meanwhile busily blaming each other. Franz Schweitzer, a director of the Dass recycling company in Berlin, said: 'The only explanation is that the lorry-loads were tampered with en route.'

Behind the trafficking lies the problem that over the past 10 years Germany, a pioneer in environmental matters, has imposed on itself some of the toughest regulations in the world, without having the means to respect them. This posed less of a problem before the fall of the Wall, since much of the worst waste went to East bloc countries desperate for hard currency. Unification changed all that. Although some toxic waste is still transported to Romania and Poland, German cities were anxious to find another big outlet. They did not look far, with recycling costing 30 German marks ( pounds 18) per ton in France, and DM140 in Germany, with vast opportunities for illegal dumping.