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ENVIRONMENT: Waste Headed for a Third World Bin

Julio Godoy

BREMEN, Germany, Sep 21 2006 (IPS) - The Panamanian flagged ship Probo Koala unloaded more than 550 tonnes of toxic waste at Abidjan port in Cote d’Ivoire a month back. Emissions from that toxic waste have killed seven people and poisoned thousands.

The deadly cargo was shipped to Abidjan from Amsterdam, where port authorities rejected the tanker Jul.2 because of its toxic load. The Probo Koala had been chartered by Trafigure Beheer BV, a firm that says it specialises in the “supply and off-take of crude oil, petroleum products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), metals and metal ores and concentrates.”

Trafigure Beheer BV admits now that the vessel did not undergo mandatory cleaning before taking a new load of gasoline blend. “The reason it did not ultimately do so is because the waste disposal company in Amsterdam wanted to renegotiate its original contract,” the company said in a statement Tuesday this week.

Company spokesperson Jan Maat told reporters in Amsterdam that cleaning the ship in the Netherlands “would have meant losing an enormous amount of money.” That would be 35,000 dollars per day of delay at the port. “Therefore, we decide to pump the waste again into the tanker, and search for another port,” he said.

One port available for unloading the toxic waste was Abidjan, some 7,000 km away.

“The whole procedure was illegal,” Andreas Bernstorff, a Hamburg-based expert in toxic waste trade and former Greenpeace activist told IPS. “The port authorities in Amsterdam should have forced the Probo Koala to go to the incinerator located nearby in Rotterdam.”

Bernstorff said the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal regulates the industrialised countries’ responsibilities for disposing of toxic waste. “Following the convention, the port authorities in Amsterdam should have not allowed the Probo Koala to continue its route as if nothing wrong had happened.”

The Basel Convention was adopted in Basel, Switzerland in 1989, and came into force in 1992. The Convention forbids all forms of hazardous waste export from the most industrialised countries to developing countries.

But several industrialised countries such as the United States, Australia, and Canada have not ratified it. The Netherlands was among all 15 older members of the European Union who signed the convention since its inception in 1989.

The environmental organisation Basel Action Network (BAN) based in Seattle in the United States says disposal of the Probo Koala’s toxic waste in Abidjan was “a clear violation of international environmental norms.”

Leading environmentalists have condemned the move. “The disaster in Abidjan is a particularly painful illustration of the human suffering caused by the illegal dumping of wastes,” United Nations Environmental Programme executive director Achim Steiner said in a press statement released by the Basel Convention’s secretariat.

“It’s pure petrochemical waste,” said Rudolph Walder, a Swiss hazardous waste expert with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination mission in Abidjan. He said the waste material included solids, oily substances and water – products that could come from a refinery, from the petrochemical industry or from the cleaning of ships.

“It is very clear to me that (the waste) is a product that violates the Basel convention,” he added.

“The present situation looks very much like 1988 (before the Basel convention was adopted) all over again,” Jim Puckett from BAN told IPS. “Now, despite the regulations, there is more evidence of death and disease from waste trade than ever before.”

Martin Bézieux, expert on toxic waste at Greenpeace France told IPS that “the rules forbidding such exports exist, but their application and the control of their application are insufficient.”

Export of toxic waste from industrialised countries to developing countries is routine. According to Greenpeace, “inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found that as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.”

From Britain alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or ‘grey’ market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to South-East Asia, India, Africa and China, Greenpeace reports.

In the United States, the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition (SVTC), an environmental group campaigning against the export of electronic waste, estimates that 50-80 percent of the electronic waste collected for recycling is being exported to developing countries.

In its report ‘Exporting harm – the high-tech trashing of Asia’, released in 2002, the SVTC estimated that between 1997 and 2007, some 500 million computers used in the U.S. would become obsolete, leading to production of more than 600,000 tonnes of toxic waste, including plastics, lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, admits that 50 percent of waste exports leaving European ports do not comply with international legislation. The Commission announced in June this year that it will reinforce application of its own legislation starting 2007.

Environmental experts estimate that more than 100 million tonnes of toxic waste is produced worldwide every year, and about 10 percent of this waste is exported.

“These figures give an idea of the dimension of the situation, but cannot completely illustrate the reality of the trade with toxic waste,” Pierre Portas, deputy executive secretary at the secretariat of the Basel Convention told IPS.

A particular danger is the export of “end of life ships” contaminated with asbestos and electronic waste to scrapping yards in Asia.

Earlier this year the French government was forced to abandon export of its asbestos contaminated military aircraft carrier Clemenceau to the Indian scrapping yard Alang. But another ship, the SS Norway, formerly owned by the French government, and which is said to contain 1250 tonnes of asbestos, is waiting to be dismantled at the same scrapping yard.

Asbestos is known to cause a progressive disease of the lungs, and can provoke lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, a form of cancer in the sac lining the chest or abdomen.

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