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Friday, June 3, 2011

Mystery surrounds the toxic laden ship Probo Koala – Should it be allowed entry into India and allowed to be broken ?

I had earlier posted about the controversy surrounding the funeral voyage of French carrier Clemenceau which reached the Port of Alang for breaking but was forced to return back after legal battle and Supreme Court orders.  Here is a more sordid tale.

The tale oft repeats itself -  Profits for the rich and the dirt for the poor.  Slop is waste used to feed pig or other animals.  It is also the mash remaining after alcohol distillation.    Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into a natural environment that causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem i.e. physical systems or living organisms.  Rich nations often would allege that poor Nations with their ways are always spoiling the environment but would stealthily and sometimes even overtly dump their industrial wastes in other Nations.

Way back in Oct 2004, Trafigura chartered vesssel Probo Koala under the terms of a time charter.  The scene shifted to Abidjan, the economic and former official capital of Cote d’Ivoire – the Ivory Coast.  It is widely reported that as part of their trading operations,  Trafigura was carrying out gasoline blending and caustic washing on board the vessel in international waters. This involved the addition of caustic soda and a catalyst to the Probo Koala’s naphtha cargo to remove mercaptans. This is a recognised procedure which oil companies adopt to improve naphtha.  The slops, which arose as a result of these caustic washing and blending  operations, were stored on the vessel Probo Koala in separate tanks.  In the midst of land scams, this was a waste scandal on board a ship.  It is stated that "the smuggling of hazardous waste is  more lucrative."   Sadly it is studied that the waste dumped in Ivory Coast in 2006  contained the lethal gas hydrogen sulphide.

Hydrogen sulfide is the chemical compound with the formula H2S. It is a colourless,  poisonous, flammable gas with the characteristic foul odor of rotten eggs at concentrations up to 100 parts per million.  It is lethal and can kill humans on exposure.  It is a veritable environmental gas chamber. 

There are reports that the toxic ship Probo Koala is heading for Indian shores to be dismantled, after the Bangladesh had denied entry to the vessel.   The ship is a 1989-built oil carrier cargo vessel, weighs 31,255 tonnes,and now named Gulf Jash.  The ship had been the eye of storm earlier – Trafigura reportedly tried offloading toxic material in Amsterdam, but was imposed heavy charges then tried its way in Nigeria but finally dumped chemicals at Ivory Coast.

Newsreports reveal that in  2002, Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex began to accumulate significant quantities of coker gasoline, containing large amounts of sulfur and silica, at its Cadereyta refinery.  By 2006 Pemex had run out of storage capacity and agreed to sell the coker gasoline to Trafigura. In early 2006, Pemex trucked the coker gasoline to Brownsville, Texas, where Trafigura loaded it aboard the Panamanian registered Probo Koala tanker, which was owned by Greek shipping company Prime Marine Management Inc. and chartered by Trafigura. Trafigura desired to strip the sulfurous products out of the coker gasoline to produce naphtha which could then be sold. Instead of paying a refinery to do this work, Trafigura used an obsolete process on board the ship called "caustic washing" in which the coker was treated with caustic soda. The process worked, and the resulting naphtha was resold making huge profits.  In Aug 2006, the vessel was fined €1,000 per cubic metre disposal charge in Amsterdam, and being turned away by several countries, the Probo Koala offloaded more than 500 tons of toxic waste at the Port of Abidjan.  The dumped chemical was  then spread, allegedly by subcontractors, across the city and surrounding areas, dumped in waste grounds, public dumps, and along roads in populated areas. The substance gave off toxic gas and resulted in burns to lungs and skin, as well as severe headaches and vomiting. Seventeen people were confirmed to have died, and at least 30,000 were injured.  

Quite unfortunate that there are many reported and many more unreported incidents of toxic materials off loaded in poorer countries.  An International treaty known as Basel Convention – on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. 

The present owners of the vessel Probo Koala registered with Panama are toying with the idea of disposing the toxic waste laden ship elsewhere – they tried Bangladesh and then India appears to be their next choice, reportedly the port of Alang in GujaratEarlier, Lord Fraser of Carymyllie was appointed by Trafigura in November 2006 to conduct an independent inquiry into the events following the discharge of slops from the Probo Koala in the Cote d’Ivoire port of Abidjan.  Lord Fraser in his first Interim Report in May 2008 had expressed his frustration citing no. of factors beyond his control leading to delay. 

The rechristened Gulf Jash had been sold for scrapping at the beaches of Chittagong in Bangladesh.  Environmental, human rights and labour rights organisations represented by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform fear that the Probo Koala will be allowed to perpetuate its deadly legacy by being broken down in unsafe and environmentally damaging conditions.   The NGOs fought with the Govt to deny entry and say no to illegal toxic waste trade.  

As it had International repercussion, a civil lawsuit was instituted in London in 2008 by almost 30,000 Ivorians against Trafigura.   The Company threatened libel suit against BBC and reportedly there was unnamed settlement to the class action suit. 

Whatever be the merit of all these, there is enough substance to believe that such ship will bring in its tide environmental harm and pollution.  Ship breaking is more of manual activity – done in yards where not much of protection and safety is available.  The workers are lowly paid and are exposed to many dangers and work in poor conditions.  In the National interests there need to be appropriate legislative measures to protect the workers and more so, the Nation itself from such hazards.

Regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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