AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 38/2006

Toxic-Waste Ship "Probo Koala": Profits for Europe, Industrial Slop for Africa

By Sebastian Knauer, Thilo Thielke and Gerald Traufetter

Part 2: Part II: The "Ivorian Chernobyl"

The Ivorian media was filled with speculation over the incident. Was Tommy established specifically for this deal? And did Trafigura play a role? Both Trafigura and members of the president's family held shares in a company called Puma Energy, which awarded Tommy the contract to dispose of the toxic sludge the ship was carrying. Officials at Trafigura's headquarters in the Netherlands have denied any involvement in Tommy.

Local papers came under pressure for reports on what they described as the "Ivorian Chernobyl." Two journalists were arrested, along with seven employees of the waste disposal companies. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who may be involved in the waste scandal through his family members, promptly dismissed the entire government.

SPIEGEL has obtained a copy of a confidential fax the captain of the Probo Koala sent to his African partner company, in which he writes that the load was "not waste water from normal shipping operations," but "chemical waste water" that exceeded allowable limits.

Records documenting the ship's movement show that the Probo Koala spent a lengthy period of time this year off the coast of Gibraltar and the Spanish city of Algeciras, where it served as a sort of "bunker ship" for chemical wastes from other ships -- a claim Trafigura has denied.

According to an analysis by experts at Amsterdam's APS, the material's characteristics suggested that it was waste material from refineries. Trafigura, however, has said the oil waste on the Probo Koala had accumulated in the ship's lower tank after "multiple cleanings." The chemical cocktail, says Trafigura, developed as a result of "the addition of too much soda."

A trend in Europe

Whatever subsequent studies reveal, insiders are concerned about what is clearly a growing trend. Global trade will continue to generate waste scandals, says UNEP director Steiner, because "the smuggling of hazardous waste is becoming more and more lucrative." Steiner wants to see his agency better equipped to identify such "corrupt deals with deadly consequences" before they take place and to have "tough penalties" imposed on violators. The UN agency plans to send $13.5 million in immediate aid to the Ivory Coast.

The international environmental organization Greenpeace also fears that emerging nations and their often corrupt regimes are once again offering the industrialized world inexpensive waste disposal options. Although the practice had subsided somewhat in recent years as a result of various treaties, there are now growing reports of attempts to export toxic waste. This has prompted Gerd Leipold, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, to warn of a new "toxic waste colonialism." As a number of recent cases illustrate, Leipold's concerns are not unfounded:

  • Bales of sorted plastic remnants collected under Germany's Green Dot household recycling program ended up in the Egyptian desert.

  • In Nigeria, a businessman was paid $100 a month to store thousands of containers of Italian toxic waste on his property.

  • In a deal the government of the West African country of Benin signed with France, Benin gets an advance cash payment of $1.6 million and 30 years of development aid in return for accepting hazardous waste, including radioactive waste.

Often masked as the exportation of "valuable goods," large amounts of discarded computers, mobile phones and other electronic junk, as well as old cars and refrigerators are sent to Africa -- all filled with hazardous substances, some of which are highly toxic, including oil, fire retardants, dioxins and PCBs.

A toxic-waste incident of frightening proportions could already be in the making in war-torn Somalia on Africa's eastern coast. The December 2004 tsunami also reached Somalia's sandy coast, where it claimed about 300 lives. German aid organization Caritas provided humanitarian aid through its Somali partner organization, especially to the Somali fishermen affected by the giant wave.

Somalis took the Caritas aid workers to the beach to show them a strange discovery. The tsunami had exposed large tanks in the sediment off the country's flat coast and pushed them ashore. The unlabeled containers of unknown origin are carefully welded shut. By knocking on the tanks, the workers discovered that they contained liquid.

Caritas hired Andreas Bernstorff, the former head of Greenpeace, to travel to Somalia, where he provided the local workers with protective suits. Initial plans to fill the tanks' presumably toxic contents into other containers were abandoned. Instead, the workers temporarily encased the mysterious containers in fiberglass mats.

Citing "security reasons" stemming from Somalia's civil war, UNEP declined to conduct an investigation. It is known that large shipments of toxic waste, especially from Italy and Switzerland, were taken to Somalia in the 1980s and may have been dumped off the coast. The matter can only be resolved by professionally drilling into the thick-walled tanks under stringent safety precautions. Nevertheless, any new information the tests could yield is unlikely to produce significant consequences after so many years.

But the Probo Koala case, on the other hand, has generated political pressure in the Netherlands, especially against Pieter van Geel, the Dutch State Secretary for the Environment, whose inspectors had certified the black sludge as relatively harmless "ship waste." Under the current plan, Abidjan's toxic waste will be recovered and burned in a French hazardous waste treatment facility.

Dutch investigators are not unfamiliar with oil trading company Trafigura, which was presumably behind the scandal. A court in Texas ordered the company, established in 1993, to pay penalties and repay profits of close to $20 million for breaking US laws and violating the embargo provisions of the "Oil for Food" program in Iraq.

A UN investigative commission also believes that Trafigura paid large sums of money to the son of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Kojo.

In the current case, the company insists "the cargo was properly disposed of." Nevertheless, say company spokesmen, Trafigura is "concerned" over "residue from the petrol cargo" in the Ivory Coast.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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DER SPIEGEL 38/2006
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