Deadly cargo dumped in the Ivory Coast

Feature story - September 15, 2006
Toxic waste from Europe openly dumped on the streets of an African capital city. Six people dead and thousands requiring medical treatment. The Ivory Coast cabinet resigns but still no one owns up to the dumping. How could this be allowed to happen?

The scandal of the toxic waste dumped in the Ivory Coast first came tolight on September 6 when the first casualties where reported andprotests broke out on the streets against the government, which wasblamed for allowing the dumping.

There is no doubt that the wastes are deadly. Four of the six dead arechildren and 23 people have required hospital treatment so far. Thefact that the toxic waste was dumped openly on the streets of a city isshocking enough. The fact that the waste was delivered by a shipchartered by Trafigura LTD (controlled by Dutch firm Trafigura BeheerBV), who claimed they thought the waste would be 'properly treated' ina poor African nation raises serious questions about why they sent itto Africa. The fact that international law may have been broken makesit a serious scandal that such deadly incidents still occur today.

Back from the past?

We campaigned long and hard for an international ban on the dumping oftoxic waste by rich countries in poor countries, which resulted in the Basel Ban in 1998.  So we want to know how the dumping occurred, what was dumpedand who is responsible. A full version of what we know to date isavailable but here is a short summary:

On 19 August, a ship called the Probo Koala unloaded a toxic wasteshipment in Abidjan, the main economic capital of the Ivory Coast.However it was not until the first week of September that the incident came tolight. The Ivorian Ministry of Health announced an extraordinarymeeting that led to the dismissal of its government on 6 September.

As international and/or local environmental laws may have been broken,we are calling for a transparent and thorough investigation by therespective international and local authorities. The facts behind thisdeadly tragedy in the Ivory Coast remain obscured by the vesselcharterer, Trafigura.

We continue to investigate the chain of events, but the lack of transparency in the shippingindustry as a whole, and specifically from Trafigura and various portauthorities, are hiding the facts from the public.Official investigations on the national and international levels areurgently called for to establish liabilities, to indicate where nationsare failing to uphold their international commitments and to make surethis deadly type of export never happens again.

Mystery movements

On July 2 the Probo Koala attempted to unload waste in Amsterdam.Noting the strong-smelling nature of the waste and probable toxic nature, harbour authoritiestold the ship that the waste would be more expensive to dispose of. The ship refused to pay extra treatment costs and leftAmsterdam. Where the ship went between the 2 July and 19 August, andwhat it did with its toxic cargo, remains unclear.

Once in Abidjan the ship unloaded waste supposedly to be treated by anIvorian waste handling firm. In fact the waste, which appears toconsist of volatile hydrocarbons, was dumped at 11 sites in the city.Symptoms reported by those who come in contact with the waste includerespiratory problems, nausea, dizziness, vomiting (including throwingup blood), burns and irritation from the toxic waste.

Will anyone take responsibility?

Once it is established where the waste originated in Europe, thatcountry could be liable to take back the waste. If the toxic waste wasconsidered regulated under the Basel Convention and bound for export,the Dutch Authorities could have prevented the ship leaving with toxicwaste onboard.

While it is obvious that the crisis could not have happened without thelocal public and private complicity, the company Trafigura clearlyshould be the centre of an investigation into any attempt to takeadvantage of legal loopholes and grey areas to assess if itdeliberately broke the law.