The story of the Probo Koala is a dark tale of global corporate greed. The Trafigura company reported $28 billion in profit for 2005. Their ship, the Probo Koala, attempted to discharge toxic sludge under false pretenses in Amsterdam. The fraud was discovered and the ship informed that it would cost $300,000 for proper disposal. So they carried their noxious cargo on a roundabout path to Ivory Coast, where 18 tanker trucks surreptitiously dumped the load all over suburban Abidjan – practically dumped it right on the people of Abidjan.
Now, I’m sure the captain of the Probo Koala saw precious little of that $28 billion. He is probably just a guy trying to survive and support his family in a system where his bosses don’t want to know how things got done, just that they got done. Corporate responsibility has to start at the top. Sadly, I bet the bosses at Trafigura see little connection between themselves and the people sickened by their sludge in Abidjan.
“Six-month-old Salam Oudrawogol of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, has been covered with sores since he was exposed to toxic waste in August.”
Global Sludge Ends in Tragedy for Ivory Coast – New York Times
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Sept. 28 — It was his infant son’s cries, gasping and insistent, that first woke Salif Oudrawogol one night last month. The smell hit him moments later, wafting into the family’s hut, a noxious mélange reminiscent of rotten eggs, garlic and petroleum.Mr. Oudrawogol went outside to investigate. Beside the family’s compound, near his manioc and corn fields, he saw a stinking slick of black sludge.
“The smell was so bad we were afraid,” Mr. Oudrawogol said. “It burned our noses and eyes.”
Over the next few days, the skin of his 6-month-old son, Salam, bloomed with blisters, which burst into weeping sores all over his body. The whole family suffered headaches, nosebleeds and stomach aches.
How that slick, a highly toxic cocktail of petrochemical waste and caustic soda, ended up in Mr. Oudrawogol’s backyard in a suburb north of Abidjan is a dark tale of globalization. It came from 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. Safe disposal in Europe would have cost about $300,000, or perhaps twice that, counting the cost of delays. But because of decisions and actions made not only here but also in Europe, it was dumped on the doorstep of some of the world’s poorest people.
So far eight people have died, dozens have been hospitalized and 85,000 have sought medical attention, paralyzing the fragile health care system in a country divided and impoverished by civil war, and the crisis has forced a government shakeup.
“In 30 years of doing this kind of work I have never seen anything like this,” said Jean-Loup Quéru, an engineer with a French cleanup company brought in by the Ivorian government to remove the waste. “This kind of industrial waste, dumped in this urban setting, in the middle of the city, never.”
The tale of the sludge can be traced to July 2, when a rust-streaked tanker, the Probo Koala, arrived in Amsterdam after a lengthy stay in the Mediterranean. Leased by Trafigura, a global oil and metals trading company, it was pausing on its way to Estonia to unload what the company said was 250 tons of “marslops” or “regular slops.” That is the wash water from cleaning a ship’s holds, which would normally be laced with oil, gasoline, caustic soda or other chemicals.
Amsterdam Port Services, a waste processing company, took the job, for about $15,000. But as workers unloaded the waste, they found problems, the company said. For one, the volume was much higher, more like 400 tons. For another, the seeping fumes of the waste sickened some of the Dutch workers.
“It was pitch black and had a heavy stench,” said Luut Planting, a spokesman for Amsterdam Port Services. “No one had ever seen similar waste.”
The company stopped unloading the sludge, ordered analyses and then informed the Amsterdam city authorities of the presence of hazardous waste, Mr. Planting said. The material and test results are currently under seal in the office of the Dutch public prosecutor, which has opened a criminal investigation.
A statement posted on Trafigura’s Web site says that tests performed on material discharged by the Probo Koala in Abidjan by a laboratory in Rotterdam showed that the material was not toxic. “Contrary to speculation in the media and the activist communities about residue washings in a recent shipment to Côte d’Ivoire, tests conducted by the company and others show the washings themselves to have little or no toxicity,” the statement says.
As to the deaths and illness, the statement says, “It is still unclear exactly what caused the tragedy.”
But the Rotterdam laboratory, Saybolt, has told Dutch news media that it was asked only for a limited analysis and that the samples were not sealed, not properly marked and not wholly reliable.
Lucas Reijnders, a chemist and professor of environmental science at the University of Amsterdam, said he had seen the results of an analysis done in Ivory Coast by a lab there, Ciapol, on samples taken from the Probo Koala before the dumping.
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The analysis showed extremely high levels of caustic soda; mercaptans, a kind of sulfur compound; and hydrogen sulfide, he said. The last, he said, is a volatile compound that “smells of rotten eggs, but at high concentrations you can no longer smell it because it paralyzes your nervous system.”
“It’s very lethal and acts very rapidly,” he added. The mix, he said, was suggestive of oil refining.
Exactly where the waste originated remains unclear. A spokesman for Trafigura, Jan Maat, said the Probo Koala had served in the Mediterranean “as a floating storage tank” and had taken on loads from several different ships, but he declined to give details.
Reports in the Dutch press said the Probo Koala had been secretly used as a floating refinery during the summer, when selling gasoline had become unusually profitable.
Mr. Maat denied that. “This is absolutely untrue,” he said.
After analyzing the waste, Amsterdam Port Services told Trafigura’s London office that the price to treat and dispose of it would now be much more expensive, close to $300,000. Trafigura, which in 2005 had revenue of $28 billion dollars, balked at the cost.
“It was so much higher than the first price,” said Mr. Maat. It would also have meant staying an extra day, costing $45,000 in port fees and a penalty of some $300,000 for arriving late in Estonia, he said.
A brief standoff ensued, but the Probo Koala was able to leave Amsterdam two days later after taking back all of its waste with the permission of the Dutch authorities.
“We have never handed back or refused waste before,” said Mr. Planting. “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.”
From Amsterdam, the Probo Koala sailed to Estonia and took on Russian oil products. After delivering them to Nigeria, it continued to Abidjan, where it arrived on Aug. 19.
Mr. Maat said Trafigura’s London office had advised the Ivory Coast port authorities and the Transportation Ministry that it was delivering chemical waste requiring special treatment and close supervision, and hired a local company, Tommy. “We were informed that four companies there could handle it,” said Mr. Maat. “One of them was Tommy. Clearly this has not been a fortunate choice.”
He also said, “We do not acknowledge responsibility for the dumping of the waste without treating it.”
French, Dutch and British toxic-waste experts and oil traders said it can be easily ascertained that Ivory Coast has no facilities capable of handling high-level toxic waste.
Tommy hired more than a dozen tanker trucks, into which it pumped the sludge. The trucks fanned out, at night, to at least 18 sites across the city, according to witnesses in several neighborhoods where the material was dumped, as well as the French cleanup crew.
Several tankerloads went to the Abidjan landfill, in a community called Akouedo. Residents there are accustomed to foul odors, but knew something was particularly bad about the new material. They chased and surrounded one of the tanker trucks, forcing the driver to flee on foot, witnesses said. In other places, some trucks were simply abandoned by drivers fearful of being attacked as word of the illegal dumping crept out and public anger rose.
Efforts to reach Tommy by telephone were unsuccessful, and at least one of its executives has been jailed in Ivory Coast.
Last week Jean-Baptiste Giassey, a 13-year-old schoolboy, rooted through garbage piled at Akouedo, near a team of workers from Tredi, the French environmental cleanup company that is gathering up the polluted trash, which is expected to be sent to France for proper disposal.
Stinking mud oozed from the trash under his flimsy sandals, coating his feet and legs. He was looking for scraps of aluminum, which he would sell to traders for less than 25 cents a pound. He said he had been spending five or six hours a day at the dump, trying to earn enough money for new clothes.
“I don’t know that it is dangerous,” he said. “I come here every day.”
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At first the Ivorian government did not acknowledge that something was amiss, even though the rank smell was spreading through the streets of Abidjan. Officials say they suspect they will find more dump sites than the 18 identified so far.
The spreading illnesses sparked violent demonstrations from a population convinced that government corruption was to blame for the dumping, and ultimately the furor forced the prime minister and his government to resign in September, though much of the government was reinstated later. Six Ivorians, one Nigerian and two European officials from Trafigura have been jailed so far in Ivory Coast.
The risk of sickness from the waste has abated with evaporation, experts said. But there may be long-term effects of exposure. In Dgibi, a village on the northern outskirts of Abidjan where some of the waste landed, an impromptu clinic set up to examine people exposed to the waste has been seeing 200 patients a day.
Most complain of nausea, headaches, skin sores and nosebleeds, said Stanislaus Dessi, a doctor at the clinic who works for the Ministry of Health.
“People are scared and confused,” Dr. Dessi said. “We try to calm them and give them medicine to treat whatever symptoms they have.”
The Probo Koala, back in Estonia, has been detained by the government there at the request of Ivory Coast.
Greenpeace has filed criminal complaints in Amsterdam against Trafigura, Amsterdam Port Services and the Dutch environmental authorities. The Dutch government said it could not comment while criminal investigations were under way. There are no fewer than five investigations going on in Ivory Coast.
The city of Amsterdam and the Dutch Parliament have begun their own inquiries.
“The whole procedure was illegal, first allowing the waste in, then pumping it back on board and letting the ship leave without any licenses,” said Eco Matser, a chemist and expert in toxic waste at Greenpeace.
Africa has long been a dumping ground for all sorts of things the developed world has no use for. “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.”
Lydia Polgreen reported from Abidjan, and Marlise Simons from Paris.