European Waste Odyssey Two Jailed in 'Ivorian Chernobyl' Chemical Scandal

The first criminal sentences have been handed down in an African toxic-waste scandal involving a European ship. The Probo Koala dumped a nasty mess of chemical waste in Ivory Coast in 2006, and the pollution led to the deaths of 17 local people. Two related trials are still pending.

The tanker Probo Koala as seen in Estonia in September, 2006.

The tanker Probo Koala as seen in Estonia in September, 2006.

Two men were sentenced to prison in the Ivory Coast on Wednesday in a case involving a European oil tanker which carried unwanted toxic waste to Africa and led to the deaths of at least 17 people.

Salomon Ugborugbo, the Nigerian owner of an Ivorian waste-disposal firm called Tommy, was handed 20 years in jail for directing an operation to dump chemicals from the tanker throughout the Ivorian port city of Abidjan in 2006. A shipping agent named Desire Kouao was sentenced to five years in jail for "complicity." Seven other local officals were acquitted.

The prosecution had sought a life sentence for Ugborugbo, arguing that seventeen people had died of pollution-related maladies after the Probo Koala, a tanker chartered by the Dutch-based oil trading company Trafigura, unloaded 500 tons of chemical waste in Ivory Coast in 2006.

No one from Trafigura was on trial. The firm -- which bore ultimate responsibility for the ship -- reached a nearly €200 million out-of-court settlement with the Ivory Coast government in 2007. But two other cases related to the scandal are pending in London and Amsterdam.

In London, Trafigura faces a possible class action suit by thousands of Ivorians seeking tens of millions of dollars in compensation. Abidjan hospitals were overwhelmed in 2006 by people seeking treatment for vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and breathing problems related to noxious fumes.

A district court in Amsterdam will probe the role of several entities -- including the Amsterdam city council, the captain of the Probo Koala, and Trafigura management -- in the scandal, which became known as the " Ivorian Chernobyl."

The Probo Koala was Greek-owned and registered in Panama, but operated by Trafigura. It was moored in Amsterdam in July 2006 before heading for Estonia, where a port refused to let it clean out a mess of smelly toxic waste. The ship then brought a shipment of gasoline to Nigeria, and hired Tommy, in the Ivory Coast, to dispose of the waste.

By the time the ship returned to Estonia in September, Greenpeace activists had painted slogans on the hull for everyone to see. "Toxic crime scene," read one slogan in English. "Europe is poisoning Africa," read another, in French.

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