Spain's sinking ship

Governmental neglect leads to environmental disaster

Feature story - 9 September, 2004
A four-year-old scandal involving the MV Ulla, a vessel carrying hazardous waste from Spain, finally came to a head on Monday outside the Turkish port of Iskenderun, where the vessel sank taking 2000 tons of hazardous waste with it.

The MV Ulla sank, burying 2000 tons of toxic waste into the sea.

According to Turkish authorities, the fly ash, which came from the burning of coal in three power plants in the North of Spain, seeped into the sea when the MV Ulla started sinking on 6 September. The vessel had been docked in Turkey for over four years after the Turkish authorities had refused the hazardous cargo to be off-loaded on its shores.

This environmental fiasco started back in 1999 when 3,488 tons of hazardous fly ash was loaded onto the MV Ulla in Spain. The hazardous waste was to be sent to the Spanish company S.A. P/C De Dragados in Algeria. But following Algeria's rejection of the hazardous cargo, the ship mysteriously ended up in Turkey. Dragados claimed that the cargo was damaged as a result of bad loading in Spain.

The waste contained chromium VI - a highly toxic heavy metal - environmentally hazardous as well as dangerous for humans. The responsibility for its return lay with the Spanish government, since the ship loaded its hazardous waste in Spain. However neither the Turkish nor the Spanish authorities bothered taking any precautions to contain the environmental hazard.

Since the entry of such hazardous waste into Turkey is banned under both national and international legislation (Basel Convention), the Turkish government had been urging the Spanish government to take back the ship. In January 2002 they again urged the Spanish government and the Basel Secretariat to resolve this problem. It seems that no one wanted to take responsability for this environmental time bomb.

Now that the ship has sunk, the Basel Convention does not provide liability provision for cleaning up the mess. However, the Spanish government are reportedly offering to help in the clean-up operation.

All of this seems too little too late.

"It's good to know that Spain is willing to help, but both countries should have acted way too late on this matter. Four years is too much time to spend on a clear case of waste trade scandal. This wreck and damage at the bottom of the blue Mediterranean sea would have been avoided if Spain and Turkey has acted on time", said Banu Dockmecibasi, Greenpeace Turkey Campaigner.