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Toxic Dumping in Africa Elicits Calls for Better Controls

Kimberly Johnson
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2006
 
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."

Rotten-Egg Smell

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.

Instead of paying the $300,000 (U.S.) disposal fee in Europe, the crew continued on to Nigeria, the country where it intended on selling the gasoline shipment.

"Normally when you sell your cargo, you have to clean out your [waste] tanks at the same time," Portas said.

But for some reason, the dirty tanks were sent to Côte d'Ivoire, where a local disposal company reportedly agreed to empty them for $12,000 (U.S.).

"We don't know if [Ivory Coast] authorities were notified about the residues," he added.

Once the Probo Koala arrived in the Côte d'Ivoire port, the disposal company removed the hazardous waste from the ship, loaded it into trucks, and drove it to Abidjan's main landfill for dumping.

The waste, however, had a very strong sulfur smell akin to rotten eggs, which prompted area residents to blockade roads into the dump, Portas says.

With no way into the landfill, truck drivers began dumping around the city. Some trucks were abandoned alongside roads, their cargo tanks filled with hazardous waste.

Hard to Track

The exact extent of such scenarios occurring globally remains a mystery, Portas says.

"Unfortunately there are no statistics," he said.

Western countries may closely track incidents of illegal dumping within their borders. But obtaining accurate data in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Caribbean is more difficult.

"Cases like [the Côte d'Ivoire dumping] help governments understand what the gray areas are and how the international regime can narrow down those gray areas," he said.

Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle, Washington-based environmental group Basel Action Network, notes that most reports of dumping incidents are by their nature anecdotal at best.

And while the Côte d'Ivoire incident is bogged down in bureaucracy, it is still more straightforward than the issue of dumping postconsumer waste, such as used electronics, he says.

The high cost of postconsumer waste disposal in developed countries ensures that "it will go elsewhere," Puckett said.

But tracking postconsumer waste exports is difficult, because international tariff codes do not require transporters to distinguish between new and used electronic goods.

Often shippers claim to be donating electronics to developing countries but are never required to prove that the goods are still functional.

The loophole leaves an open door for unscrupulous dumping of junked electronics, Puckett says (related news: "Toxic 'E-Waste' Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says" [November 8, 2005]).

Nigeria, for example, has received about 500 containers of electronic equipment within the last two years under the guise of donations.

At least 75 percent of the shipment was unusable and so was hauled to open fields and burned.

Lead used in circuit boards and monitors' glass tubes goes into the groundwater, and the burning plastics release deadly cancer-causing fumes.

"That is the constant assault that Africa is receiving," Puckett said. "It's happening on a daily basis."

Stemming the tide of such shipments must be done on the export side, especially given that developing countries often don't have an infrastructure to enforce proper waste management, Puckett adds.

"The U.S. is a glaring renegade country in this issue," with no controls in place over such exports, he said.

About 80 percent of the electronic material U.S. consumers take to recyclers is going almost immediately offshore to developing countries in Asia or Africa, he says.

"Every country," he said, "should take responsibility for their waste."

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