Toxic tanker's complex trail from Amsterdam to Abidjan

Rohan Minogue, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 26, 2006
Amsterdam – The rust-streaked Probo Koala was no stranger to European ports, taking on and offloading petroleum products. But when the tanker had highly toxic waste to discharge, Europe proved too expensive and the cheaper and less regulated shores of West Africa beckoned.
Seven died and more than 40,000 sought medical help in Abidjan after waste linked to the tanker found its way onto landfill dumps around the Ivory Coast port. The government fell earlier this month as a result of the scandal.
Lucas Reijnders, a professor of environmental studies commissioned by a leading Dutch newspaper to analyse the waste, expressed astonishment at the chemical cocktail he found.
The hydrogen sulphide content of more than 6 milligrams per litre was particularly surprising, Reijnders told the NRC Handelsblad.
‘I have never seen such a high concentration in crude oil products. It is exceptionally dangerous. It attacks the nervous system and readily leads to death because the sense of smell is paralyzed,’ Reijnders said.
The owners of the load, the Dutch-registered company Trafigura Beheer, denied that there was a high concentration of hydrogen sulphide, which smells powerfully of rotten eggs, in the waste.
Based on its own tests and samples analysed by the French company hired to clean up the mess, there was none of the chemical or only very little, it said.
‘It is still unclear exactly what caused the tragedy in Abidjan,’ the company said in a statement on its website, calling the media debate on the waste ‘ill-informed.’
Trafigura also strenuously denied that the Panamanian-registered vessel, built in South Korea in 1989, had been used over May and June this year as a primitive ‘floating refinery’ to turn cheap naphtha, a light gasoline-like fraction of crude oil, into expensive petrol.
This has been alleged by another Dutch newspaper, the Volkskrant, following a reconstruction of the trail left by the tanker this year.
What is beyond dispute is that Trafigura offered some 400 tons of what it termed ‘slops’ aboard the Probo Koala to the company Amsterdam Port Services for disposal on July 3.
Also undisputed is that it viewed the 500,000 euros (625,000 dollars) tendered by APS and the processing company ATM as too high.
The Amsterdam port and environmental authorities had begun taking an interest in what the vessel was carrying as a result of the stench emitted when 250 tons were pumped to a transfer barge.
Nevertheless the waste was pumped back into the Probo Koala and it left Amsterdam on July 5, headed for Estonia, where it took on a load of oil.
On the morning of August 19 the tanker entered Abidjan, where Trafigura, acting through its subsidiary Puma Energy, contacted two waste disposal companies.
Ivorienne de Technique d’Energie (ITE) promptly rejected the tender, but Societe Tommy was less choosy, offering to dispose of the waste for 18,500 dollars, according to the Handelsblad.
The same day residents of the Akouedo part of Abidjan reacted with outrage to the powerful stench of rotten eggs emitted by the slurry being dumped by tanker trucks at a landfill site. They surrounded the last of the trucks, forcing the driver to flee.
But it was too late for seven residents of the area who succumbed to the toxic fumes. On September 4 the Ivory Coast government admitted that the slurry was dangerous, and two days later it fell.
After analysing samples taken by the Ivory Coast environmental agency Ciapol, Reijnders was emphatic that he was dealing with chemical waste, and not slops resulting from cleaning out oil tanks, as asserted by Trafigura.
‘The high-pH (indicating alkalinity) and the presence of organo-chlorides…back up my conclusion,’ he said. ‘You don’t find this in slops.’
‘The stuff is really corrosive. It goes right through the skin,’ he said, suggesting that waste oil could have been added.
Dutch members of parliament say the waste should never have been allowed to leave, and Reijnders agrees. ‘Anyone with a nose and who knows anything about chemistry should have known that,’ he said.
Three separate inquiries are underway in the Netherlands, and the authorities are refusing to comment until the results are known.
Ivory Coast prosecutors are looking into the possibility of an illicit deal involving the companies and port officials.
When the Probo Koala turned up at the Estonian port of Paldiski on September 15, it was given a clean bill of health.
‘The safety inspectorate have visited the ship: it seems a completely legal operation and the ship is not planning to leave any waste,’ Allan Gromov of the Estonian Environment Ministry said.
He described the crew as ‘pretty nervous’ and said they felt ‘very bad about becoming pariahs.’
On Monday Greenpeace brought its vessel Arctic Sunrise up alongside the tanker in Paldiski, spraying the slogan ‘Toxic Trade Kills’ on the tanker and preventing it from leaving.

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