Toxic Waste in Abidjan : Greenpeace Evaluation

Background - September 15, 2006
15 September 2006What toxic wastes were dumped in eleven unsecured sites around Abidjan in the Ivory Coast ? What impact has there been on health and environment? And who is to blame?

The purpose of this briefing is to share with the public and the mediaour current knowledge of what occurred in the recent case of toxicwaste dumping in the Ivory Coast.

Local authorities report that 6 people have died and close to 9000people have sought treatment since the toxic wastes were dumped onopen-air sites around Abidjan. Symptoms reported including respiratoryproblems, nausea, dizziness, vomiting (including throwing up blood),burns and irritation from the foul smelling waste. Currently we awaitthe health and environmental reports from experts on the ground in theIvory Coast to provide greater information on the scope of the crisis:a mission from the World Health Organisation (WHO), from the UnitedNations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), and from France.

Toxic wastes

The wastes disposed of around the city of Abidjan are liquid sludgecontaining large quantities of hydrocarbons, contaminated with at leastthree substances: hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans and caustic soda (source: CIAPOL - Center for Anti-Pollution Control in the Ivory Coast).

Both hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans are toxic chemicals. Hydrogensulphide is a gas which smells strongly of 'rotten eggs' and is apotent poison of the respiratory system. Exposure to high levels in airin a confined space can lead rapidly to loss of consciousness,respiratory failure and death, though in the open air it may beexpected to be dispersed before reaching such lethal concentrations.Mercaptans are highly volatile and very strongly smelling chemicals(with a smell like garlic or rotting cabbages) which cause irritationto the eyes and respiratory system and can cause rapid onset of nausea.There is one reported case of a worker exposed to very highconcentrations of methyl mercaptan in a confined space developinganaemia, going into a coma and dying. However, as mercaptans produce ahighly offensive smell even at low (part per billion) concentrations inair and water and cause strong feelings of nausea and irritation atlevels slightly above this, exposure to lethal concentrations is likelyto be very rare.

If people have been exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulphide andmercaptans in the air as a result of the dumping operation, thensymptoms such as nausea and respiratory problems could certainly beexpected. However, with the very limited information available to date,it is not possible to confirm a direct link with cases in which peoplehave been hospitalised with diarrhea or other symptoms, or with thereported deaths. Further investigations of the nature of the wastes,the extent of contamination of air, water and soils and of theunderlying causes of the more serious illnesses and deaths are clearlyurgently required.

The Investigation

On 19 August a Panamanian flagged ship, the Probo Koala, unloaded atoxic waste shipment in Abidjan, the main economic capitol of the IvoryCoast. However it was not until the first week of September when theIvorian Ministry of Health announced an extraordinary meeting that ledto the dismissal of its government on 6 September, that the incidentbegan to draw international attention. (The Ivory government is in theprocess of rebuilding and recovery after years of civil war and afragile government had been established under the supervision of ONUCI,the United Nations peace process in the Ivory Coast).

As international and/or local environmental laws may have been broken,Greenpeace calls for a transparent and thorough investigation by therespective international and local authorities. The facts behind thegreat suffering endured by the Ivory Coast through this deadly tragedyremain obscured by the vessel charterer, Trafigura. We base thisconclusion on our research of the movements of the Probo Koala inEurope and in Africa, of an unclear association between Trafigura (theinternational petroleum trader who chartered the ship) and the Ivorianwaste handling firm Societe Tommy, and of actions taken by the Dutchauthorities while the ship was in the Netherlands. Greenpeace continuesto investigate the chain of events leading to this irresponsible act,but the lack of transparency in the shipping industry as a whole, andspecifically from Trafigura and various European port authorities, hasgrossly delayed the rights of the Ivorian public to know the facts ofthis tragedy. Official investigations on the national and internationallevels are urgently called for to establish liabilities, to indicatewhere nations are failing to uphold their international commitments andto make sure this deadly type of export never happens again.

What we know is that on several weeks before arriving in the IvoryCoast, MV Probo Koala attempted on 02 July to discharge toxic waste inthe port of Amsterdam. Remarking on the strong smell of the waste, theAmsterdam Port Service realised that the waste was of an unusuallytoxic character. When informed that there would be an additionalexpense for treating the waste, the Probo Koala chose to look for aless costly option. Members of the Parliament of the Netherlands and aninvestigation by the public prosecutor are questioning why authoritiesallowed the ship to sail away with a toxic waste in its hold. A juniorminister of the Dutch Ministry of the Environment has told an inquiryat the country's Parliament that he had did not have legal means tostop the ship leaving the Netherlands. The M|V Probo Koala, decidingagainst paying costs for waste treatment , on account of the conditions(financial) requested by the Dutch waste management company, then leftfor Estonia.

What was the route, the cargos and the slop generated by the ProboKoala between June 2006 and 19 August? Where was the ship before itreached Amsterdam? It is unclear what ports the Probo Koala visited andwhat cargos were loaded/discharged (including what slop was generatedand/or discharged) before Abidjan. According to some sources, the ProboKoala stopped in the Spain at the port of Algeciras. Other reports saythat the ship navigated the length of the coast of Africa looking for aport, possibly Senegal or by some accounts Nigeria. A company statementstates that the waste disposed of in the Ivory Coast was from tankwashings. After emptying its wastes and despite the beginning of alocal investigation, the Probo Koala was permitted to sail from theautonomous port of Abidjan towards Estonia.

One question is whether the wastes were entirely generated via on boardoperations. In a statement to the press the charterer Trafigura statesthat the caustic nature of the waste was from use of caustic soda as adetergent for tank washings. However given the rarity of using causticsoda to wash tanks that carry refined petroleum products, it is notunreasonable to consider that the waste could come from land basedsources.

Ascertaining Responsibility

An investigation will require determining the type of wastes involvedwhich will then identify the applicable international legal framework.Two types of international legal frameworks may be involved: the MARPOLlegislation (UN International Maritime Organization) regulating wastefrom onboard operations on ships, and the Basel Convention togetherwith the Basel Ban (UNEP) that regulates the generation, trade anddisposal of hazardous wastes. Under the Basel Ban, implemented intolegally binding EU law, exports of hazardous wastes from the EU tonon-OECD countries is prohibited.

Under the Basel Convention and its ban the responsibilities for thedumping of wastes in Abidjan will be tied to the generator of thehazardous wastes; the exporter of the wastes (charterer Trafigura) orto the country of export.

The EU has ratified and implemented the Basel convention. therefore, ifthe wastes in question are Basel convention wastes, the EU countriesvisited by the Probo Koala: the Netherlands, Spain or Estonia, could beliable to take the waste back if they were a country of export. Dutchauthorities clearly had concerns about the waste on the ship. UnderBasel they would have been obligated to prevent the ship from leavingthe country with the waste on board. Any association between Trafiguraand the waste handler, Societe Tommy, need to be investigated so thatthe international firm cannot pass blame onto a small local waste firm.While it is obvious that the crisis could not have happened without theinvolvement of public authorities and private interests on the Ivorianlevel, the company Trafigura clearly should be at the centre of aninvestigation into any attempt to take advantage of legal grey areasand non-transparent maritime regulations. Further, the responsibilitiesof European governments to allow the toxic waste to leave Europe needsto be taken into account. Any breach of international law must be fullyinvestigated.

Notes on the Companies involved

The MV Probo Koala, operates under the Panamanian flag. Its registeredowner is "Celtic Legend Shipping Inc." of Norway. While the "beneficialowner" (and manager and operator) is Prime Marine Management, ofAthens, Greece. The Probo Koala was chartered by Trafigura, LTD asubsidiary of the NL trading company Trafigura Beheer BV (the parentcompany of the 55 trading companies operated by Trafigura). ProboKoala's agent in Abidjan is WAIB-CL, and there was an intermediatecompany, between Trafigura LTD and WAIB-CL, called "SocieteTommy".Tommy was the entity that actually "disposed" of the 100's of metrictonnes of toxic waste throughout and around the city of Abidjan. Therole of Puma Energy (100% owned by Trafigura based in Amstelveen, NLand controlled from Trafigura's Lucerne, Switzerland offices) remainsunclear, as does its association with the company, "Tommy" and WAIB-CL,though the Ivorian authorities have arrested those directing each ofWAIB-CL, Tommy and Puma Energy. Puma Energy has a local office inAbidjan, Cote d'Ivoire.

African Regional Policy And Law Regarding Hazardous Waste Imports

A significant impetus for the drafting of the Basel convention was thedumping of hazardous wastes in Africa during the 1980s, due toincreasing costs associated with environmental and health protectionrequirements in developed countries.

The Basel Ban was initiated by the African group within the Baselconvention context. Prior to that, Africa took leadership on the issueof transboundary movements of hazardous waste by adopting decisionsunder the auspices of the organization of African unity (OAU) declaringthat all hazardous waste exports to Africa are banned. These OAUdecisions were subsequently transformed in 1990 into an African treatycalled the Bamako Convention that bans all hazardous waste for anypurpose from being exported to Africa, and bans ocean dumping of suchwastes. Africa has been and continues to stand united in its positionprohibiting all hazardous waste from being exported to Africa. IvoryCoast has been a champion of this position. The EU is well aware ofthis highly public African position and needs to exercise its EUresponsibility; beginning with ensuring the containment of the wastesfrom the biosphere, and launching a full investigation of the case.