Dumping Toxic waste – the underbelly of globalization

Trafigura, the Dutch firm that dumped toxic waste in Ivory coast which killed 10 people has admitted moral, but not legal, responsibility for the incident. Trafigura says it contracted properly with an Ivorian company called Tommy to dispose of the waste which was later found to have been dumped under cover of darkness in Abidjan’s residential neighbourhoods. The following morning people awoke to a sickening stench.

“The smell was so bad we were afraid. It burned our noses and eyes.”

According to Lydia Polgreen and Marlise Simons, Tommy hired more than a dozen tanker trucks into which the sludge was pumped. Later…

The trucks fanned out, at night, to at least 18 sites across the city …according to the French cleanup crew and witnesses in several neighborhoods where the material was dumped. Later…

Several trucks went to the Abidjan landfill, in a community called Akuedo. Residents there are accustomed to foul odors, but they knew something was particularly bad about the new material. They chased and surrounded one of the trucks, forcing the driver to flee on foot, witnesses said. In other places, trucks were simply abandoned by drivers fearful of being attacked.

Ten people have died, including four children, while about 100,000 have been treated for nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and migraines following exposure to the toxic waste which experts say contained hydrogen sulphide and also led to paralysis of the country’s public health system. According to a WHO spokesman, “This has put a double burden on the already weak health system of Cote d’Ivoire. This crisis has shown that the country does not have the capacity to deal with such an emergency.” On top of this, the environment has been destroyed and scared people have been displaced from their homes, many seeking refuge in the forests arround Abidjan.

Public furore over the scandal led to the Prime Minister and his government being forced to resign amid public belief that corruption was to blame for the dumping.

So far, ten people from Trafigura and Ivorian Tommy are in custody including 3 customs officials and a high ranking official at the Department of Transport. Customs officials went out on strike in support of their arrested colleagues which led to petrol stations closing due to a shortage of petrol caused by port closures..

“We have never handed back or refused waste before… But the crux was that Trafigura refused to pay. If they had, the material would have been treated and there would have been no problem.”

The rotten affair began in August when European tanker, Probo Koala, docked ship in Abidjan after leaving the Netherlands where it had hoped to offload the waste which was described as the ship’s slops. Amsterdam Port Services (APS) had offered to take care of the mess for €12,000 but the slops smelt so much workers were being sickened and Trafigura had also underestimated how much “waste” they were carrying. APS upped the price . It would have incurred costs of $35,000 a day as demurrage with additional penalties of $250,000 for delays. Trafigura, a company which in 2005 made €22 billion ($28 billion) in revenues balked at the price. After a brief stand off in the port, the dutch authorities allowed the tanker to take back its waste. Probo Koala then travelled on to Estonia, then Nigeria where it offloaded crude before contracting with Ivorian company, Tommy, to take the waste. To date, Trafigura have refused to reveal how much Tommy was paid to dispose of the waste.

Compagnie Tommy was formed after Probo Koala set sail from the Netherlands by Ivoirian businessmen. It received its licence to dispose of toxic waste as early as July 12th.

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…

So far, 500 tons of toxic sludge has been discovered at 18 sites across Abidjan, including a lagoon and the public garbage dump. European waste experts say that the Ivory Coast, one of the world’s poorest countries has no facilities to deal with such waste.

The identity of tanker is convoluted. According to Polgreen and Simons, it was “a Greek-owned tanker flying a Panamanian flag and leased by the London branch of a Swiss trading corporation whose fiscal headquarters are in the Netherlands.”

Trafigura Beheer BV has a checkered past. The company was found to have bribed inspectors in Iraq to purchase more oil than it was allowed under the “oil for food” scheme. Trafigura was founded in 1993 by associates of Marc Rich with his money, Business Week reported last year.

Polgreen and Simons revealed allegations that the Probo Koala had acted as an illegal, floating refinery 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 last summer, while global gas prices were soaring. Since then, Deutsche Presse-Agentur has reported that analyses of the tanker have supported those accusations. Trafigura has denied these allegations.

In a letter to the New York Times, Graham Sharp, director of Trafigura wrote on October 4th:

To the Editor:

Re “Global Sludge Ends in Tragedy for Ivory Coast” (front page, Oct. 2): We are shocked and distressed at the tragic events in Abidjan, but we do not believe that Trafigura can be held to have behaved irresponsibly or unethically.

We believe that the vessel slops we discharged in Ivory Coast were not capable of causing the harm that happened there. In particular, we are certain that they did not contain hydrogen sulfide.

A certified local company, Tommy, was contracted to removed the slops for disposal. The slops were offloaded in the port into road tankers under the supervision of customs officials, port officials and environmental officials. Trafigura began legal proceedings against Tommy on Sept. 8 in Ivory Coast.

We have traded in West Africa for 10 years and invested in sustainable development and the industry infrastructure in Ivory Coast. We intend to continue that commitment.

Trafigura also claimed in a pr release that “The slops discharged were not “toxic waste”. They were a mix of gasoline blend stock, spent caustic soda and water, as used routinely to clean gasoline cargoes.”

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.

“It’s pure petrochemical waste,’‘ said Rudolph Walder, a Swiss hazardous waste expert with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination mission. He said Tuesday the material included solids, oily substances and water _ products that could come from a refinery, from the petrochemical industry or from the cleaning of ships.

U.N. experts previously said the waste contained the potentially dangerous chemical hydrogen sulfide, the source of the rotten smell.

“It is very clear to me that (the waste) is a product that violates the Basel convention,” Walder said.

According to the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in its September 8 situation report that the toxic waste contains Hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans, mixed aromatic and aliphatic distillates, and unspecified organochlorides. Hydrogen sulfide, which in concentrated doses can kill humans but when diffused gives off the odour of matches or rotten eggs, according to an Ivorian government health report.

“In 30 years of doing this kind of work I have never seen anything like this,” said Jean-Loup Queru, an engineer with a French cleanup company brought in by the Ivoirian government. “This kind of industrial waste, dumped in this urban setting, in the middle of the city – never.”

“The slops from the Probo Koala were handed over to a certified local Abidjan slops disposal company, Compagnie Tommy [remember the company set up to dispose of Probo Koalas waste on July 12th], following Trafigura’s communication to the authorities of the nature of the slops, and a written request that the material should be safely disposed of, according to country laws, and with all correct documentation.

“Compagnie Tommy confirmed that the slops would be correctly processed as chemical slops, with the consent of both the Ministry of Transport and the Port Authorities.”

However, Ivory Coast did not have the facilities to dispose of this waste. This is a classic example of how greedy and unscrupulous businesses are taking advantage of lax international environmental laws to offload waste in Africa that would otherwise be too expensive to dispose of in Europe. The conventions that European heads of state sign are, in effect, meaningless.

“This is the underbelly of globalization,” said Jim Puckett, an activist at the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that fights toxic waste dumping. “Environmental regulations in the north have made disposing of waste expensive, so corporations look south.”

An investigation is underway. The UN Environment Programme is seeking evidence of whether there has been a breech of the Basel Convention, a protocol which regulates the movement of hazardous waste across international borders. It is heartening that Abidjans understood clearly what was taking place here and brought down their crooked masters. Masters who were prepared to allow the dumping of hazardous waste which lead to deaths and environmental destruction.

The cleanup which has been underway for the past two months is estimated to cost $13 million, the UN has given the country some $64 million to deal with the health care crisis.

“Anywhere where a country is suffering from political or economic instability there is always room for it to be treated as a dumping ground.”

More to follow…