Tons of ozone-depleting chemicals are reportedly being smuggled into U.S.


WASHINGTON -- As the deadline approaches for the United States to stop making almost all ozone-destroying refrigerants for domestic use, a private group is estimating that up to 22,000 tons a year, or one-third the amount sold in this country, may be smuggled in.

The federal government has no current estimate of the amount )) of the chemicals, mostly chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, entering the country illegally. But last year officials said it was about 10,000 tons.

An international agreement, in 1987, aims to limit damage to Earth's protective ozone layer but does not ban use of the chemicals.

The agreement, the Montreal Protocol, bans production of CFCs for most uses in developed countries at the end of this year. The agreement, in its current form, will allow production for use in developing countries for 10 more years.

The ozone layer in the stratosphere protects people, plants and animals against damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Deterioration of the ozone layer, many scientists believe, will increase the incidence of skin cancers and other radiation-related diseases.

The private group, Ozone Action, also said that a new pattern of international trade is developing, with the United States exporting more and more CFCs to developing countries, even though production for domestic use is banned.

Such exports are legal, and the producers argue that they are even desirable, because they will forestall countries like India and China from building their own factories, which they might not shut down when their deadline arrives in 2005.

To avoid duties and excise taxes, which total almost $6 a pound, smugglers are bringing CFCs into the United States from Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union, Ozone Action said.

The group said that a 30-pound cylinder that costs $70 in Europe is sold in the United States for $242. If 22,000 tons are smuggled in yearly, the group calculated that lost duties and excise taxes would amount to more than $200 million.

Thomas A. Watts-FitzGerald, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami who has prosecuted several CFC smuggling cases, said in a telephone interview that there was an informal consensus among government officials last year that about 10,000 tons of CFCs were smuggled into the country every year. He said the quantity had probably declined because of recent prosecutions.

The material seized from smugglers is given to the Defense Department, which stockpiles it for use in older equipment, said John Passacantando, executive director of Ozone Action.

Ozone Action's study, by Jim Vallette, a specialist in world trade, DTC was based on conversations with distributors and scrutiny of shipping records around the world.

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