for National Geographic News
Recent illegal toxic waste dumping in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has led to at least ten deaths and renewed calls from environmentalists for tighter controls over international waste shipments.
Tons of poisonous chemical sludge were dumped at various sites around the port city of Abidjan in August (Côte d'Ivoire map), leading to thousands of reports of people suffering from vomiting, diarrhea, and nosebleeds.
Investigations are underway to find out why the waste was illegally dumped after being offloaded from the Probo Koala, a tanker registered in Panama that had been chartered by a Dutch-based oil trader.
Meanwhile, the incident has many environmental groups decrying a lack of proper controls over the international waste recycling market.
As waste management has become globalized, countries with civilian unrest, no environmental law enforcement, or weak legislative frameworks have become prime targets for illegitimate hazardous-waste dealers, the groups contend.
"Unscrupulous dealers are also globalized," said Pierre Portas, deputy executive secretary of the Basel Convention Secretariat, the part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that deals with waste management.
"Wastes always follow the path of least resistance," Portas said.
"What is happening in Côte d'Ivoire is a series of unfortunate events linked to greed. That toxic waste should have never reached Abidjan."
Details about why the waste was allowed to enter the West African country remain hazy. Numerous calls to the Embassy of the Ivory Coast in Washington, D.C., seeking comment went unanswered.
Portas describes what he calls a likely scenario: the Probo Koala probably picked up a load of low-grade gasoline. The fuel was then refined on the ship, he says, using a process in which caustic soda is blended into gasoline to remove sulfur.
The ship likely then traveled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where officials noted the high toxicity level of the waste.
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