Ausgabe 38/2006

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

Europe wouldn't take the ship's stinking, poisonous cargo. So it sailed to Africa and dumped the toxic mess into an Ivory Coast lagoon. Just the most recent example of western nations using Africa as a toxic waste dump.

By Sebastian Knauer, and

The worst is when it rains. The water flows through the streets of Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, located next to a series of lagoons. With the water comes a toxic soup of industrial poison -- a dark, glistening mess reeking of sulfur and rotten eggs. The caustic fumes it releases cause vomiting, nosebleeds, headache and rashes.

The hospital in Cocody, a downtown neighborhood in this city of 4 million, is in a state of high alert. Women stand waiting in the hallways, pressing paper masks tightly against their noses and mouths. Masks are currently a hot commodity in the Ivory Coast, where street dealers sell them for 20 West African centimes apiece.

A little over a month ago, a fleet of tanker trucks loaded with a toxic brew of cleaning chemicals and gasoline and crude oil slop was dispatched into the streets of Abidjan. Under cover of night, the drivers secretly dumped their loads in 14 locations around the city -- near vegetable fields, fisheries and water reservoirs. All told, the cargo amounted to 528 cubic meters (18,857 cubic feet) of toxic waste that had reached the West African coast on board an oil and cargo freighter.

The route of the  Probo Koala .

The route of the Probo Koala.

Now many residential neighborhoods adjoining the dumpsites are all but deserted. When news broke of the first casualties, thousands packed their belongings onto donkey carts and buses and moved to the nearby forests -- from which many had only recently fled to escape the violence of the country's civil war. Angry demonstrators poured through Abidjan's streets. The transportation minister, who had resigned over the scandal, was seriously beaten in broad daylight. The toxic slop has already claimed the lives of seven people, four of them children, and more than 9,000 have fallen ill, according to official figures. And although the vapors are gradually becoming less toxic, this is no reason for optimism. The disaster has crippled the city's garbage collection, prompting fears in the medical community of epidemic disease.

The disaster is instructive: This is what happens when affluent western societies run out of places to dump their waste; when increasingly stringent environmental laws at home mean skyrocketing waste disposal costs; when criminal profiteers seek low-cost solutions.

The dead and sick in Abidjan demonstrate the failures of government agencies, of the unscrupulousness of businessmen and the dubious nature of international agreements like the Basel Convention, which has in fact banned the international transport of toxic waste to developing countries since 1989. For Achim Steiner, director of United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the toxic shipment dumped in the Ivory Coast is "a particularly painful example of how illegal waste disposal causes human suffering."

Removing European waste

Some experts see Abidjan's toxic cocktail as Africa's biggest environmental scandal yet. But the odyssey of the Probo Koala reveals the scandal as a sordid story that unfolded in the heart of Europe.

It began on the afternoon of July 2. As the ship was unloaded in Amsterdam's petroleum port, a west wind carried its sharp stench into nearby residential neighborhoods, where residents notified the police. "This is the worst stench we have ever experienced here," said an employee of Amsterdam Port Services (APS), a waste disposal company. APS took a sample of the black substance from one of the ship's tanks. Though declared as "waste water" used to clean gasoline shipping tanks, chemical analysis told a different story. The hydrocarbons in the material contained high concentrations of a substance known as mercaptan -- a substance which is found in some crude oils and is produced by decaying vegetable matter, which is highly toxic -- and smelly -- in high concentrations. Authorities halted the unloading of the waste. The captain of the ship, which was Greek-owned and registered in Panama, angrily turned down a proposal by APS officials to dispose of the waste properly at special facilities in Rotterdam. The cost would have been about $250,000, plus another $250,000 in contractual penalties for the ship's likely delayed arrival at its next port of call in Estonia.

For executives at Trafigura, a Dutch oil trading company with annual sales of $28 billion, that cost was too high. Management decided to send the ship on its way.

Three days later, the Probo Koala set sail again, now bound for Estonia. Under international regulations governing the cross-border shipping of hazardous waste, German authorities should have been notified of the ship's passage to German and Danish waters. Amsterdam port officials did send an urgent message to their counterparts in Paldiski, an Estonian port, informing them that a ship with a "suspicious cargo" was headed their way. The Probo Koala was also unable to get rid of its chemical soup in Paldiski, where it took on a shipment of gasoline bound for Africa. After unloading the gasoline in Nigeria, the Trafigura-chartered vessel arrived in the Ivory Coast in August. A company called Tommy, which had just been established in July, took delivery of the slop which the European ports had turned away.


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