Arrest that freon

Copyright 1998 Washington Times
October 4, 1998

It's been effective. It's been cheap. And you better not let the Environmental Protection Agency catch you with any more of it.

"It" is Freon, a switch-hitting substance used to do everything from refrigerating medicine to propelling aerosol sprays to suppressing fire. It also helped put the cool in air conditioners until the Environmental Protection Agency decided that it threatened to rip open the Earth's protective ozone layer and expose the planet to cancer-causing, sheep-blinding, food-chain-destroying radiation. In the wake of a 1987 international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone layer, the agency banned import and production of Freon in this country, although it allowed consumers to use existing supplies for the likes of auto air conditioners.

As this newspapers' Joyce Price reported this week, the feds have been trying to police its use ever since. The war on Freon now ranks up there with the war on drugs. U.S. Customs officials in Texas and Florida say that Freon trafficking is second only to illegal drug trafficking. As much as 10,000 tons of the stuff comes into this country every year, according to EPA.

U.S. demand remains high because the alternatives are expensive. Using Freon substitutes in cars designed for the real thing can require costly modifications and repairs. Retrofitting autos to use still other Freon substitutes can cost hundreds of dollars. Relying on the dwindling legal stock of Freon to charge one's air conditioner may run $50 per pound, versus the $1 per pound it used to cost. So resorting to the $2 a pound black market in this country, which is fed by developing countries not yet subject to the protocol's ban, can be a bargain, not just for consumers but for traffickers who can go down to Mexico, pick it up cheap and sell it back here for more.

Although the Freon black market has attracted the attention of big-time smugglers, it has also effectively criminalized a whole new class of people. One law-enforcement official told Outside magazine that these "criminals" are often surprised the feds are so concerned about illicit Freon: "Many of these smugglers are people who never would consider breaking the law, but the money involved is too much of a temptation."

So what is this country getting for its tax dollars other than more criminals and greater job security for law-enforcement officials. Attorney General Janet Reno promised a safer, healthier world. "To [Freon] smugglers, we say, 'We will find you, we will shut down this black market, and we will not let you endanger our ecosystem and our children for a few dollars.' " Other public officials and media have made similar promises.

In his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," Vice President Gore warned that increased ultraviolet radiation, resulting from a depleted atmospheric ozone layer, was costing assorted animals their eyesight. "In Patagonia," he said solemnly, "hunters now report finding blind rabbits; fishermen catch blind salmon." There simply isn't any evidence to link ozone depletion with blinded animals.

Likewise, The Washington Post warned in 1989, "If these tiny, free-floating seaplants called phytoplankton are fried by harmful radiation, the entire food web of Antarctica could collapse." To date, no one has found any ozone-fried phytoplankton, and the food chain has not collapsed.

The bad news is that rather than renounce the Montreal Protocol, people like Mr. Gore are talking about using it as a model for reductions on so-called greenhouse gases said to contribute to global warming. Given that most countries that signed onto the Montreal accord aren't actually enforcing it, putting still another anti-competitive burden on this country would be almost a crime. And thanks to the Montreal protocols, this country has all the crime it needs.

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