Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Trafigura, a Dutch oil trading company

Who wants to live in Africa ...?

Der Spiegel has an interesting article on European companies using Africa as a dump for toxic materials.

Some experts see Abidjan's toxic cocktail as Africa's biggest environmental scandal yet. But the odyssey of the Probo Koala reveals the scandal as a sordid story that unfolded in the heart of Europe.

It began on the afternoon of July 2. As the ship was unloaded in Amsterdam's petroleum port, a west wind carried its sharp stench into nearby residential neighborhoods, where residents notified the police. "This is the worst stench we have ever experienced here," said an employee of Amsterdam Port Services (APS), a waste disposal company.

APS took a sample of the black substance from one of the ship's tanks. Though declared as "waste water" used to clean gasoline shipping tanks, chemical analysis told a different story. The hydrocarbons in the material contained high concentrations of a substance known as mercaptan -- a substance which is found in some crude oils and is produced by decaying vegetable matter, which is highly toxic -- and smelly -- in high concentrations.

Authorities halted the unloading of the waste. The captain of the ship, which was Greek-owned and registered in Panama, angrily turned down a proposal by APS officials to dispose of the waste properly at special facilities in Rotterdam. The cost would have been about $250,000, plus another $250,000 in contractual penalties for the ship's likely delayed arrival at its next port of call in Estonia.

For executives at Trafigura, a Dutch oil trading company with annual sales of $28 billion, that cost was too high. Management decided to send the ship on its way.

Three days later, the Probo Koala set sail again, now bound for Estonia. Under international regulations governing the cross-border shipping of hazardous waste, German authorities should have been notified of the ship's passage to German and Danish waters. Amsterdam port officials did send an urgent message to their counterparts in Paldiski, an Estonian port, informing them that a ship with a "suspicious cargo" was headed their way.

The Probo Koala was also unable to get rid of its chemical soup in Paldiski, where it took on a shipment of gasoline bound for Africa. After unloading the gasoline in Nigeria, the Trafigura-chartered vessel arrived in the Ivory Coast in August. A company called Tommy, which had just been established in July, took delivery of the sludge which the European ports had turned away.

Read on if curious ...

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