Posted by: Home Strange Home | August 24, 2010

Africa as Europe’s Bin

Previously in this blog I wrote about the illegal dumping of hazardous electronic and electrical appliance waste in Ghana, so-called “e-waste,” which is exported from the UK and Europe against regulations. Sadly, West Africa has also been the victim of waste dumping of a much more lethal variety, namely hazardous petrochemical waste. Earlier this month, the Cameroonian Environment Minister announced that he received intelligence that a Dutch ship was seeking to dump waste along the Cameroonian coast. If this is true, it would be shocking and ironic in light of the recent conviction of the oil trading company Trafigura for a similar crime committed in July 2006.

Trafigura’s illegal and irresponsible treatment of tonnes of highly toxic petrochemical waste in the port of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire led to 15 deaths and made 100,000 people ill. The waste was dumped in a dozen open landfills (bordered by poor neighbourhoods) around the city, making residents vomit and choke. Trafigura still insists the waste was not toxic and could not have caused harm, even though a UN-appointed investigator and expert on toxic waste found evidence that the deaths and illness were related to the dump. Moreover, a University of Amsterdam researcher found high levels of dangerous components in analysis of a sample of the waste.

Last month, Trafigura was convicted in a Dutch court on criminal charges of a) trying to conceal the true nature of its dangerous toxic waste (claiming it was merely slops) in an effort to dispose of it cheaply in the Netherlands, and b) when this plan failed, proceeding to illegally export it out of Europe, rather than spending the money necessary for specialist disposal. (They were not charged for what actually happened in Cote d’Ivoire.)

Trafigura had initially offered a Dutch waste disposal company $15,000 to deal with the waste, but once the company realized how toxic the waste was, they quoted a fee of twenty times that: $300,000. But rather than paying the money, Trafigura tried to cut corners by pumping the waste back on the boat, leaving the Netherlands (and thereby illegally exporting toxic waste), and sailing a circuitous route via several other dumping sites (including in Estonia and Nigeria) which refused the waste. The tanker continued on to Abidjan, where Trafigura had set up a local shell company named Tommy which agreed to deal with the waste for $10,000.  It did not have the capacity to deal with it properly and dumped it illegally.

Trafigura’s actions were not only illegal and immoral, but ultimately short-sighted – while it could have forked out an extra $285,000 to deal with the waste properly, in the end it paid £32 million in compensation to the 30,000 people requiring medical treatment, £100m to the Ivorian government for the waste clean-up, and a €1 million fine in the Dutch court. But the fine Trafigura paid was half of what was expected, and small in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, the only prison sentences that were handed out were to lower level employees – the captain of the tanker Probo Koala and a London-based employee – and were merely four- and five-month suspended sentences. No charges were made against any of the senior-level executives.

While Trafigura clearly have blood on their hands in this case, they are not the only ones to blame. The officials at Abidjan port and in the Ivorian government who are responsible for monitoring the shipping and management of hazardous waste failed to do their job in the face of repeated red flags. While it is clearly not in the interest of a developing country to receive toxic waste, there may be individuals within the country who stand to benefit from it – either corrupt government officials who take bribes in exchange for accepting the toxic waste, or not-so-corrupt government officials who are simply desperate for foreign exchange to pay off their crippling debts. The international community needs not only to hold companies such as Trafigura accountable, but also to devise a solution for the underlying problems that make developing countries targets for waste dumping in the first place.

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