Government cracks down on CFC smuggling

WASHINGTON (AP) — A banned chemical linked to destruction of the earth’s ozone layer is joining narcotics as the most lucrative contraband for smugglers, feeding a growing black market that law enforcers are struggling to shut down.
The Justice Department announced indictments Thursday charging a dozen people in four states with smuggling into the United States containers of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a refrigerant used in millions of auto air conditioners.
Officials acknowledged that a nationwide crackdown is stopping only a fraction of the illegal chemical, much of it smuggled from Mexico. To date, 1.5 million pounds have been confiscated, but officials estimated 20 million pounds crossed U.S. borders illegally last year alone.
The profits can be immense. CFCs may sell for less than $2 a pound in India or just across the border in Mexico, where they are legally produced, but would command $13 to $20 a pound in the U.S. black market, experts on the CFC trade said. The United States ended production for domestic use in 1995.
To focus attention on the growing problem, Attorney General Janet Reno announced Thursday’s indictments against smuggling suspects in Florida, Georgia, Texas and California.
For decades, CFCs ranked among the most widely used industrial chemicals. Sold under the trade name Freon, the chemical now known as CFC-12 served as primary coolant for automobile air conditioners, and an estimated 80 million cars built before 1994 still use it.
The chemical is to be phased out globally under a 1987 treaty, negotiated after studies convinced most environmental scientists that CFCs destroy the atmospheric ozone layer protecting the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. Industrial nations already are barred from producing the chemical for their own use, but the deadline for poor countries to stop was set at 2010. CFCs still are made in the United States, but only for export to countries where they remain legal.
Law enforcement officials said primary sources of illegal CFCs entering the United States appear to be Russia, India and China. Smuggling has shifted recently from Florida to the Southwest, where the chemical enters through Mexico, say these officials.
“We’re seeing almost the same pattern we’ve seen in drug seizures,” said George Weise, head of the U.S. Customs Service. Once concentrated primarily in Florida, now the smuggling is “transcending the continent in scope, … wherever (smugglers) feel least resistance.”
Current stockpiles of legal CFC-12 from past production and of recycled coolant is supposed to meet the needs of the current fleet of cars still using the banned chemical. When that stockpile is used up, motorists will have to switch to a more environmentally friendly alternative.
Browner said widespread sale of illegal CFCs on the black market is postponing the shift to the alternative coolant. That in turn makes it more difficult to meet the country’s commitment to phase out the ozone-damaging chemical.
Many environmentalists argue the only way to stop the illegal market is to stop production of CFCs everywhere.
“Smugglers are adept at adjusting to any kind of enforcement situation,” said Jim Vallette, a trade analyst who has closely studied the international CFC market for environmental groups. “The underlying problem is the ongoing global production of the chemical. The continuing supply is feeding the continuing demand.”