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EU learns a lesson about chemical waste

Court rules that it's not OK for European companies to dump waste in the developing world.

Ivorian farmer
A farmer points to his unusable fields near a warning for a toxic zone near Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Aug. 23, 2007. The area was still unsafe one year after a Greek cargo freighter chartered by the multinational Trafigura dumped hundreds of tons of toxic waste , which Ivorian authorities have said killed 15 people and made thousands ill. (Issouf Sanogo/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Oil trader Trafigura maintains that it did nothing wrong by disposing of hundreds of tons of “chemical slops” in the Ivory Coast back in 2006. But on Friday a Dutch court said otherwise, fining the Swiss-based multinational $1.3 million dollars for exporting its waste to a developing country and harming the environment.

Trafigura insists the waste was not toxic and disputes the Ivorian government’s claim that 16 people died and thousands were sickened because it was dumped in the streets of Abidjan. That was after it had tried to offload the stuff in Amsterdam, where the cost quoted for the clean-up was deemed too high, leading Trafigura to instead subcontract the disposal to an Ivorian agent.

Four years later, European authorities are doing a better, but hardly perfect, job of preventing toxic exports. The European Commission estimates that 2.6 billion tons of waste is generated in the EU each year and that 90 million tons of that is hazardous.

Read: Imagining a recyclable EU

At the same time, the EU’s executive admitted that illegal “dumping of waste continues on a significant scale, many landfill sites are sub standard and … illegal waste shipments are also a concern.” Its own reporting shows that recent checks on waste shipments out of the EU revealed a full fifth of them to be in violation.

Last month, Nigerian government authorities were waiting in a Lagos port for one of those vessels as it arrived from Antwerp, Belgium. They’d been tipped off by Antwerp police that the MV Gumel Panama would be bringing in eight trucks full of illegal toxic waste — including old batteries, broken TVs, worn-out videocassette players and refrigerators containing outlawed chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) — as it had managed to slip away after 33 similar containers had been confiscated in Antwerp’s port. Nigeria turned the ship back to Antwerp.

Two months earlier, another vessel filled with similar items was intercepted in the same port and sent back to Rotterdam, Netherlands where it had been loaded.

All too often, the perpetrators come from the countries with the most stringent legislation in the world against toxic waste, the European Union.

The potential for profit is just too high, laments Greenpeace, estimating an annual turnover of $124 billion, providing 1.5 million jobs. The organization has been tracking the illegal trade for years and last month released the report “The Toxic Ship," documenting 94 attempts to export hazardous cargo to Africa, often by European sources, including the Italian mafia.

Especially tied to Italy are are strange incidents such as ships full of waste that sink in the Mediterranean Sea without so much as a “mayday.”

The EU is not lacking in waste legislation; it has some 60 regulations, directives and decisions. But enforcement is the problem.

Besides the bloc’s own regulations prohibiting such activities, all EU nations are bound by the Basel Convention, outlawing the export of hazardous waste and requiring it to be treated as close to its origin as possible. (The U.S. has not ratified the treaty.)

But by exploiting the many loopholes — such as calling the items “donations” or claiming that they are functioning second-hand goods for re-sale — or by simply breaking the law, middlemen are making millions, which developing nations are paying for with their health.

Of course, there is also a small segment of the population of these mainly West African nations that is profiting too, and the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) considers it so serious that it warns “democracy will not flourish” as long as the illegal trade does.

Another organization tracking such shipments is the Danish organization DanWatch.