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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Delivery

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Philippe Sands of London’s Centre on International Courts and Tribunals about the recent 200 million dollar payment in the case of a toxic waste dumping scandal in the Ivory Coast. At least ten people died and 75,000 sought medical help last August after 400 tons of waste generated by the Dutch company Trafigura were dumped in the capital city of Abidjan.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In late August of last year, residents in neighborhoods around the capital of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan woke up feeling nauseous and gasping for breath. Some were also vomiting and bleeding from their noses. Within a few days at least ten people had died—the actual number is unclear, and an estimated 75,000 had sought medical help.

The cause: hundreds of tons of toxic waste from Europe, including highly caustic chemicals, that had been dumped illegally from the Probo Koala, an oil tanker owned by the Dutch company: Trafigura. A cleanup began almost immediately, but three company officials were jailed in September and were held until earlier this month. That’s when Trafigura paid the government of the Ivory Coast about $200 million, but accepted no liability for the incident. On the line with us is law professor Philippe Sands. He directs the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at the University College London.

Hello sir!

SANDS: Hi, very nice to join you.

CURWOOD: So this 200 million dollars, how does that compare to the health crisis that erupted in Abidjan after this dumping?

SANDS: Well, it’s difficult to give a precise, ah, view on that because it seems like a very large sum of money. On the other hand the very large volumes of hazardous wastes, over 400 tons by some accounts, obviously had been spread to a number of different sites and seem to have caused very significant health consequences. So it’s important to note, on the terms of the agreement, neither side accepts any sort of liability for the consequences. So it’s called, in legal terms, it’s an ex gracia payment. The hope of both sides is that this is going to sort it out once and for all.

CURWOOD: How does a settlement like this factor into the terms of the Basel Convention which prevents one country from dumping toxic waste on another country?

SANDS: The Convention seems to have been violated. And the Convention establishes very strict rules on notification, on prior agreement, when hazardous waste is taken from one country to another country. And here obviously something went seriously wrong. But looking on the bright side it’s pretty clear that if the Basel Convention had not been in place there would not have been a settlement of this kind. Now that is not to say the rules under the Basel Convention are adequate. There’s been a call as a result of this incident and other incidents, for a tightening up of the rules to make them even stricter.

CURWOOD: Cote D’Ivoire is a divided country right now, at war with itself. How well do you think the government is going to be able to handle these funds?

SANDS: Well that’s the big question. I mean how well is any government able to handle the sharing of large funds in natural or other types of disasters such as this? I mean you know we’ve seen in the United States with Katrina the terrible problem of getting monies around. We’ve seen in the United Kingdom, my own country, situations where bombings have happened in London and questions come up of compensation: who gets what. These are very difficult issues and I think for a government like the Cote D’ Ivoire, which as you say finds itself deeply divided at the moment, within its government as well. There are going to be huge pressures to divert some of the funds elsewhere, to use them for particular ways. In the Cote D’Ivore, as for any country, 200 million dollars is a pretty large sum of money. And it will be very important to make sure, firstly that the money goes where it should go and secondly that the costs of administering that fund don’t eat up a significant chunk to avoid them going where they ought to go.

CURWOOD: How much of a deterrent is this settlement for another company that might be thinking about it?

SANDS: That’s an interesting question, an important question. I mean, Trafigura must have taken the view that paying 198 million dollars or there abouts, was a price worth paying to get rid of this issue. Um, what that means for other companies is not clear. But it will certainly concentrate companies’ minds, ah, that if they violate the rules, if they’re caught and if they’re subject to claims such as this, they’re not going to get away scott free. Others will say that this was a relatively small sum of money, ah, given what its liabilities could have been under various court proceedings and that may yet turn out to be the case. But for the time being I think that companies that are thinking about transporting waste around the world will think a little bit more carefully about evading their responsibilities under international conventions. And 200 million dollars is 200 million dollars.

CURWOOD: I understand that eventually this material was taken to France where it was disposed of properly. Why didn’t it stay in Europe to begin with?

SANDS: Well, that is a very powerful question. There is an emerging principle of international law called the principle of proximity. And the principle of proximity says hazardous materials should be disposed of in the place in which it is produced. And on that principle it ought to have been disposed of where it was generated in the first place.

CURWOOD: Philippe Sands is a law professor and Director of the Center of International Courts and Tribunals at University College in London. Thank you so much sir.

SANDS: Delighted to join you.



The Basel Action Network

The United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP) on toxic trade

To view the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team's report on the toxic dumpings in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire click here.


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