The ‘Probo Koala’ and the Trafigura affair come to India
Little did I know, when I covered-in September 2009- the story of the havoc this ship and its owners wrought in Côte d'Ivoire, that the Probo Kaola would threaten our own Indian shores with its toxic waste. The Panamanian ship was chartered by the commodity giant Trafigura in August 2006 when she dumped deadly toxic waste that found its way to a dozen locations in and around Abidjan, creating a major health crisis. Seventeen died, and over 30,000 were injured (see pic), many with severe burns on the skin and lungs. A hundred thousand sought treatment in all.
News reports now say that the Probo Kaola is heading for India to be broken up. The 31,255 tonne Kaola has been renamed ‘Gulf Jash’, according to a group of activists that call themselves 'NGO Shipbreaking Platform.' According to a report in the Times of India, the Gulf Jash was banned recently from entering Bangladesh after environmental activists in the region raised a clamour, warning the Bangladeshi government about the antecedents of the vessel. Banned from Bangladeshi yards, she is reportedly now en route for India- probably Alang, instead.
For years, the Probo Kaola/Gulf Jash has been a marked ship, with Trafigura resorting to all kinds of tricks to avoid costs for disposal of toxic waste- and later, fines for breaking the law. Diverted to Abidjan after she faced disposal issues in Amsterdam, the vessel remained in the eye of the storm after the humanitarian disaster the waste –that Trafigura insisted were just ‘slops’- caused at the time. Trafigura reportedly paid £30 million to the victims and nearly £100 million to the Ivory Coast government for cleanup costs in 2009, when we covered the story.
Recent initiatives by environmentalists in Bangladesh and India have put the ship breaking businesses there under a bright spotlight. Long criticised as a dirty, polluting and unregulated industry, the South Asian style of ship breaking has come under increasing fire by activists for its disregard for the environment, its lack of safety standards and its reputation for circumventing the law whenever possible. Other factors, including increased incidents of the dumping of waste in India and the greater willingness of Jairam Ramesh’s environment ministry to examine such deals are contributing to the activists’ optimism that the ’Gulf Jash’ will not be allowed into India waters.
Environmentalists say that the ship contains tonnes of hazardous asbestos , PCBs, toxic paints, fuel and chemical residues which have not been cleaned up before sending the ship for dismantling, says the Times, adding that India’s reputation has been tarnished by it becoming a dumping ground for toxic waste.
Trafigura’s antecedents do not inspire confidence in its integrity. The company was accused of running an illicit ‘do it yourself’ refinery on the Probo Koala off Gibraltar that directly resulted – due to the use of caustic soda- in the toxic waste being generated in the first place. Trafigura threatened the BBC with libel when it reported the story on its ‘Newsnight’ programme – which saw toxicologist John Hoskins from the Royal Society of Chemistry saying that the waste on the Koala would ‘bring a major city to its knees’. The BBC called the Kaola affair ‘the biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century’
This is the ship that is said to be heading to India. We fervently hope that the authorities here will ban the Gulf Jash – and all such future ‘toxic ships’-from entry into Indian waters. Our environment should not be up for sale.