Groups Oppose Toxic Debt Payment

Quezon City, Philippines. As the 14th Congress gears up for the 2008 budget hearings, concerned groups restate their objection over the use of scarce public funds to pay for defunct waste incinerators in government-run hospitals. Members of the EcoWaste Coalition and the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) assembled in front of the East Avenue Medical Center (EAMC) to call attention to the money the country throws away to pay for defunct medical waste burners in 26 hospitals under the Department of Health. Volunteers clad in protective suits unfurled a “Stop Toxic Debt” banner, while others held placards asking the authorities to stop payment for what they viewed as a highly “illegitimate loan” that the government secured in 1997 to purchase the Austrian-supplied incinerators. “Is it not gut-wrenching to be paying for these toxic incinerators when we know that the Department of Health is short of funds for non-burn treatment technologies for decontaminating infectious or pathological waste that will not endanger hospital staff and host community with dioxin and other harmful emissions?” asked Manny Calonzo, Secretary, EcoWaste Coalition. “We believe that the government of Austria will understand if the Philippines will negotiate for the cancellation of the incinerator loan, so we can shift the appropriated funds for measures that will protect the public health,” Calonzo said. “In the immediate, we call on our legislators to strike out the $2 million from the proposed 2008 budget earmarked for the payment of the said incinerators pending an independent and thorough investigation. The said money should instead be used to augment the minuscule health budget,” said Milo Tanchuling, Secretary General, FDC. “A meticulous and comprehensive inquiry is needed not only to unravel the web of controversies surrounding the contract, but also to hold accountable those involved and more importantly to rescind this illegitimate loan,” Tanchuling stated. On 30 July 2007, the EcoWaste Coalition, FDC, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and Greenpeace Southeast Asia launched the “Stop Toxic Debt” campaign targeting the cancellation of payment for the dirty technology transfer. Signed by the Department of Finance and the Bank of Austria, the total loan package originally amounts to over P503 million. With 4% percent interest per annum, the loan has to be settled in 24 semi-annual payments until 2014. The government has started paying for the loan since 2002. For 2007, a total of US$1,993,640 or about P92 million has been put aside to pay for this “toxic debt.” Actual inspection by Greenpeace Southeast Asia revealed that the 26 incinerators “dumped” in the recipient hospitals, including the EAMC, were obsolete and exceedingly polluting despite being marketed by the technology vendor as “the most efficient, safest and comparatively cheapest.” A follow-up investigation by the EcoWaste Coalition showed that the incinerators have been decommissioned in 2003 in compliance with the scheduled phase out under the Clean Air Act of 1999 of medical waste burners that emit toxic and poisonous fumes. After the three-year grace period, the law requires the use “state of the art, environmentally-sound and safe non-burn technologies” to process or treat infectious or pathological waste. The EcoWaste Coalition and the FDC reiterated their call to the Government of Austria to cancel the “toxic debt,” and for the Government of the Philippines to repudiate it in the name of public health.