Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Trafigura Affair

‘The biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century’: BBC

pic from

LONDON, September 20 Reuters reported on the weekend that the International commodities trader Trafigura has reached a ‘settlement’ with thousands of people in Ivory Coast who fell ill from toxic waste dumped around Abidjan in 2006 . The settlement was reached a week before a class action suit was to be heard in London against the commodities giant that is one of the biggest in the world. Although the Netherlands based firm has put on a brave face on the proceedings, saying, oddly, that the result had vindicated their stand, observers say that that this incident demonstrates once again how Western countries and companies use poor developing countries as dumping grounds for dangerous hazardous material with impunity. They point out that nobody seems to have learnt from the backlash of similar culpable behaviour in Somalia: piracy.

Just four days ago, IHS Global Insight had disclosed the existence of a UN report that damned Trafigura, with the UN’s Okechukwu Ibeanu reportedly saying that there was corroborating evidence linking the reported deaths and ill health to the dumped waste from the Panamanian registered and Greek owned ship, the Probo Koala, in 2006. Ibeanu said that there were areas around Abidjan that had still not been decontaminated.

In a report that prompted threats of libel action from Trafigura, the BBC said that its investigations revealed that the company bought cheap dirty heavy oil with a high sulphur content, chartered the Probo Koala from Greek owners and stationed it as a ‘do it yourself refinery’ off Gibraltar. The idea: sell the ‘refined’ oil at a massive profit. However and quite obviously, the adding of caustic soda and a catalyst to the oil produced toxic sludge. They tried to dispose this in the company’s ‘home port’ of Amsterdam (were officials involved there, we wonder?) as normal ship’s waste. The Amsterdam authorities found foul fumes emanating from the Probo Koala and called in emergency services. Tests found that the waste was highly toxic, and the authorities told Trafigura that it would cost half a million Euros to dispose of safely. Very suspiciously, the company was then allowed to pump the waste back on the ‘Koala’ and leave the port. We know where the ship, and the waste, ended up.

Trafigura, which has extensive operations in the UK, then hired a contractor to ‘dispose of slops’ from the Probo Koala at Abidjan. The company had described the slops as ‘residues from gasoline mixed with caustic washings’. Later events proved this claim spurious: a Dutch inquiry, news reports, and the government of Côte d'Ivoire claimed the substance was more than 500 tones of a mixture of fuel, caustic soda, and hydrogen sulphide transported from Europe as toxic waste. The dumping of the waste caused a health crisis in Ivory Coast. In August 2006, the waste was found to have been dumped by a local contractor in up to 12 sites around Abidjan. The gas emitted by the waste caused 17 deaths; another 30,000 or so people fell sick, with symptoms that ranged from mild headaches to vomiting to severe burns of skin and lungs. Women miscarried. A year later, some newborn children were dying because of what a doctor said was “acute glycaemia caused by the toxic wastes". Freshwater supplies and fish in entire areas were found contaminated; in one village, every resident fell ill in a population of 2000. In all, almost 100,000 Ivorians sought medical attention after the manmade disaster.

Trafigura denied any wrongdoing, claiming that only small amounts of hydrogen sulfide was present in the waste and that it did not know, in any case, how the waste would eventually be disposed. Nevertheless, the company paid US$198m in 2007 for cleanup costs to the Government of the Ivory Coast, who pledged not to prosecute the company. This, however, was after two Trafigura executives visiting the country after the incident were arrested and put in jail. Specialists from the United Nations, France and the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment were sent to Abidjan to investigate the dumping.

Inevitably, there was political fallout as well. The transitional Ivory Coast government of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny resigned in the aftermath. A Dutch government report said that the waste actually contained two tonnes of the deadly hydrogen sulphide. In December 2006, an independent inquiry conducted by Amsterdam said that the city had been negligent when they allowed Trafigura to take waste back on board the Probo Koala in Amsterdam in July. Just negligent?

Trafigura has, over the three years since the incident, attacked the mainly European press that has been reporting the scandal, forcing an apology from the Times and demanding that many of the others retract their stories. Trafigura threatened to sue the BBC for libel for its reporting of the scandal in its ‘Newsnight’ programme in May this year. Newsnight consulted a leading toxicologist, John Hoskins from the Royal Society of Chemistry on the affair, who said that the waste on the Koala would ‘bring a major city to its knees’. The BBC said that “the waste included tons of phenols which can cause death by contact, tons of hydrogen sulphide, lethal if inhaled in high concentrations, and vast quantities of corrosive caustic soda and mercaptans which John Hoskins described as ‘the most odorous compounds ever produced’.

Many feel that rampant environmental vandalism and the behaviour of developed countries and companies towards environmental issues in developing countries is a huge ongoing problem. Equally disturbing for us is the fact that the Trafigura affair has, inevitably within it, rogue elements from the shipping industry as well.



Thursday, 17 September 2009

Coming up: Sea Trains in the Arctic

The future of sustainable shipping post climate change?

Could the Arctic Ocean be sailed in the future by ship trains more than a kilometer and a half long? It certainly appears so after DNV gave an assignment to a bunch of bright summer students recently. Called “Sustainable adaption to climate change: Arctic opportunities and threats,” the project gave the thirteen students six weeks to come up with a concept for a “ship” called the AMV Njord: The Arctic Modular Vessel.

The year 2050 was chosen for the project. This is the year by which the Arctic Ocean is predicted to be free of ice all summer, although it will have easily breakable ‘first year ice’ formation in winter. With these parameters in mind, DNV picked five young women and eight young men and asked them to conceptualise the AMV Njord. These students, all Scandinavians, came from disciplines as diverse as biology, energy, IT, logistics and naval architecture.

The students’ final solution? A deceptively simple concept: a ship that is planned like a train with many ‘modules’, each 200 metres long. The total length of the AMV Njord can be as much as 1.8 kilometres, which would imply a maximum of nine modules. Each module will have a high sail that will catch the wind at a height of 300 metres. Additional propulsion will use hydrogen fuel cells and have 200 metre long propulsion units at each end. Also envisaged at each end: submersible propeller thrusters.

Finally, a rotating bow will transform from a normal bow to an ice breaking one as the modular vessel sails from ice free seas to areas with ice formation requires a stronger bow. Navigational equipment will be satellite based and advanced, no special equipment being required for a journey across the Arctic.

DNV was reportedly thrilled that its experienced staff could find no flaws in the students’ groundbreaking concept. The thirteen youngsters made a presentation at the DNV Head Office amidst a slew of industry participants, including representatives from shipping companies and from three Norwegian Ministries, besides equipment manufacturers. Senior staff at DNV expressed admiration for the concept and the presentation, which was made twice so that everyone could see it close up.

“Ships are getting bigger and bigger. We’re pushing boundaries all the time. This concept is a continuation of this trend,” said Maersk Director Wilhelm Mohr at the presentation.

”I’m proud to be responsible for this,” says Gustav Lybæk Heiberg, Project Responsible in DNV. ”Our intention with this student project is to attract the most clever people and get them to look at our problems with fresh eyes.”

Half a million dollars of wages owed to abandoned crew

Fifteen crewmembers of the Panamanian registered reefer ship ‘Remora 1’ have been finally repatriated from Dakhla in Morocco nine months after their ordeal began; however, they are collectively owed a total of US$483,936 in wages. The Remora 1 was abandoned by Norwegian owners Atlantic RTI and the ship’s Dutch bankers, Bank HBU; there were fourteen Ghanaian and one Ukrainian crew on board at the time. The owners refused to pay for food, water or fuel or to cover repatriation costs. Nine months after their nightmare began, the local Union Syndicat des Capitanes et Officers de la Marine Marchande Affilie a La CDT (SCOMM CDT) coordinated with maritime and government authorities to get permission for the crew’s repatriation. The Ghanaian consulate in Casablanca paid for the Ghanaians trip home and the Ukrainian crewmember’s family paid for his repatriation. Finlay McIntosh, ITF maritime operations, says, “Unfortunately the crewmembers are still owed wages totalling almost US$500,000. The local union is looking at ways to ensure that the seafarers’ claim is recognised once a decision has been made regarding the vessel.”



Colombia finds $11 million dollars in container:

Colombian customs agents have seized $11.3 million in cash from a shipping container in the nation's largest port last week. National Customs Director Nestor Diaz confirmed that it was the largest haul ever found at any Colombian port. The money was hidden in a cargo of ammonium sulfate that arrived in Buenaventura from Mexico. Diaz refused to identify the company that shipped the container: both Colombia and Mexico are notorious for cocaine smuggling, and observers fear that the ongoing drugs war in Mexico is prompting new routes for the shipment of money and cocaine to be opened up. Carcol radio reported that the cash was stashed in plastic bags each of which contained nearly $700,000. Police say that the container originated in Manzanillo, Mexico's busiest Pacific coast port.



Teenage girl she will be youngest to sail around the world despite collision:

Sixteen year old Australian schoolgirl Jessica Watson, whose yacht, ‘Ella’s Pink Lady’ collided with the cargo ship ‘Silver Yang’ in a busy area off the southern Queensland coast, remains undeterred, saying that she remained confident of becoming the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Jessica sailed out from Mooloolaba on Queensland's Sunshine Coast on a ten day preliminary journey to Sydney in her boat. Near disaster struck soon thereafter: her yacht crashed into the bulk carrier 15 nautical miles east of North Stradbroke Island's Point Lookout when she was below decks. Speaking to reporters after she was escorted back to the Gold Coast, she said she was tired but upbeat: "The whole incident gives me confidence that I can actually handle this," she said. "It could have happened to anyone. I'm unlucky, I suppose, but you also learn from it," she added. Damage to the yacht may involve repairs to the vessel’s rigging and a small section of the hull. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is conducting a full investigation of the incident. In a press release back on land, Jessica said she was ‘still in high spirits and acknowledges the ongoing support of her family, friends and sponsors who are all solidly behind her record breaking bid to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world.’



Thursday, 10 September 2009

Industry Snapshots

Alang boom worries environmentalists Gujarat's shipbreakers may be celebrating the recession, but environmental groups and human rights activists are getting increasingly concerned at the negative impact of the sharp rise in business experienced this year. Alang, the 'graveyard of ships' that stretches over seven miles of beach, is at the focus of their concern. Almost half the world's scrapping taking place here, (most of the other half is in Pakistan and Bangladesh): critics argue that this is solely because there is no regulatory oversight at par with that in the US or Europe. The result: high levels of toxicity and dangerously unsafe operations. Mercury and asbestos routinely pollute the environment, critics allege, pointing out that beach breaking would never be allowed in more advanced countries as it leads to unacceptably high levels of pollution. In addition, migrant labour works in dangerous conditions with regular accidents, they claim, pointing out to the fire that killed six in Alang last month. Dwarika Nath Rath, an activist, says, "These workers, coming from places like Orissa and Bihar, say that if they want to save their families they have to die themselves." Another bone of contention: rumours that two US Government owned vessels, MV Pvt James Anderson and MV 1st Lt Alex Bonnyman, are due to be scrapped at Alang. US government owned ships have been banned from being broken up in Asia since 1998. "This is really shocking," says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, an environmental group. "We have elected an environmental President, and his administration is, for the first time in 10 years, willing to ignore the law and dump toxic waste from US flagged ships on developing countries."

Bedlam (and Logjam) in the Hoogly? Logistics firms, shipping companies and large Indian corporations are getting increasingly worried at the worsening situation in Haldia and Kolkata: silting of the Hoogly has resulted in greater draft restrictions in the two ports. This, combined with other issues that have plagued the ports for a long time have resulted in many shippers being forced to lighten cargo at Paradip or elsewhere before calling Haldia or Kolkata. It has also meant that smaller ships now call these ports in West Bengal, creating further congestion. Companies like SCI and Tata Steel have expressed concern. An ex trustee of the Port Trust has been quoted as saying that total traffic at the Haldia Dock Complex (HDC) is projected to see a 6 million tonne decline in 2009/10. This would be calamitous for the Kolkata Port Trust, as HDC is their lifeline, besides the fact that Kolkata and Haldia docks are a gateway to cargo bound for the North East and Nepal. Industry observers in Kolkata say that it is just a matter of time before the private Dhamra port, yet to be made operational, takes away huge business from the KoPT, plagued as it is with many other issues.

U.S. and Canada near agreement for tougher ship emission standards. The two countries are close to finalising an agreement that will regulate the emissions of ships within 200 miles of its shores, media reports confirm. The IMO is expected to approve this at its meeting in March, having agreed in principle to the proposals at an earlier meeting in July this year. Once approved, ships will have to use fuel with a lower sulfur content beginning 2012, with further decreases by 2015. Starting 2016, new engines on vessels operating in the area would have to additionally reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent. Researchers at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that thousands of lives will be saved every year and that 3 million people will avoid respiratory problems with this exercise. Critics allege, though, that these measures don't go far enough "since Carbon dioxide and black carbon (soot), two of the main contributors to global warming, are left unregulated". Ships today account for about 17 percent of the air pollution around the US; a figure which would go up to 50 percent by 2030 if corrective action is not urgently taken, they claim.