Holes in the Ozone Treaty

September brings two annual rituals. The first is the yearly checkup that scientists give the "ozone hole." True to recent form, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced last week that the Antarctic ozone hole, a drastic thinning of the protective atmosphere over the South Pole, is already twice the size it was. last September. At 3.9 million square miles, it's as big as Europe and still growing. The second ritual follows the first: despite the gaping hole, policymakers declare that ozone depletion is under control. A 1987 international treaty requires the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals that eat ozone molecules like so many Pac-Men. As a result, the ozone layer (which blocks dangerous ultraviolet sunlight) will reach its prepollution levels by 2050 or so . . . "if everyone sticks to the rules," as a WMO scientist said.

In other Septembers, that might have been just a throwaway line. But now it looks as if not everyone is obeying the rules. According to a report last week by the environmental group Ozone Action, there is a thriving black market in CFCs, in which importers bring tons of the chemicals from Europe into ports ranging from Newark to Miami. Most of the illegal CFCs wind up with auto air-conditioner rechargers, says the EPA's Tom Land. Rather than using recycled CFCs, as the law requires, some shops use the cheaper bootlegged CFCs. The black market topped 22,000 tons last year, according to export/import documents analyzed by Ozone Action, and will amount to about 10,000 tons this year, thanks in part to a global dragnet called Operation Cool Breeze. Run by the EPA, Customs Service, FBI and CIA, Cool Breeze has obtained convictions of eight CFC smugglers in the last year. One Florida woman was found guilty this month of smuggling 209 cargo containers, each holding 18 tons of CFGs. She was nailed, but the goods were never confiscated. Presumably they're wafting up to the ozone layer.

This is "Ozone Layer Awareness Week," and in a letter one EPA official claimed that Dee. 31 "is the last day" CFCs can be manufactured in the United States. In fact, the international treaty lets American factories produce 53,500 tons each year, for export, until 2005. That's 15 percent of 1986 production -- far from the complete ban. "A perception has been established that all is well," says John Passacantando of Ozone Action. "With loopholes allowing so much extra CFC production, the [international agreement] is more a surrender than a peace treaty." CFC manufacturers defend the continued production. By importing CFCs rather than producing their own, says Dave Stirpe of the industry group Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are more likely to phase out use of the destructive chemicals than if they had invested millions in their own CFC factories. "We are protecting the ozone layer by exporting CFCs," says Stirpe. Maybe so, but the planet's protective shield is clearly going to get worse before it gets better.