Trafigura is just another case of global fly-tipping. It's all too easy for firms to protect profit and pass risk to the poor world
It was revolting, monstrous, inhumane and scarcely different from what happens in Africa almost every day. The oil trading company Trafigura has just agreed to pay compensation to 31,000 people in Ivory Coast, after the Guardian and the BBC's Newsnight obtained emails sent by its traders. They reveal that Trafigura knew that the oil slops it sent there in 2006 were contaminated with toxic waste. But the Ivorian contractor it employed to pump out the hold of its tanker dumped them around inhabited areas in the capital city and the countryside. Tens of thousands of people fell ill and 15 died. While the settlement says that the slops could at worst have caused a range of short-term low-level flu-like symptoms, and anxiety, it is one of the world's worst cases of chemical exposure since the gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. But in all other respects the Trafigura case is unremarkable. It's just another instance of the rich world's global fly-tipping.
On the day that the Guardian published the company's emails, it also carried a story about a shipwreck discovered in 480 metres of water off the Italian coast. Detectives found the ship after a tip-off from a mafioso. It appears to have been carrying drums of nuclear waste when the mafia used explosives to scuttle it. The informant, Francesco Fonti, said his clan had been paid £100,000 to get rid of it. What makes this story interesting is that the waste appears to be Norwegian. Norway is famous for its tough environmental laws, but a shipload of nuclear waste doesn't go missing without someone high-up looking the other way.
Italian prosecutors are investigating the scuttling of a further 41 ships.
But most of them weren't sunk, like Fonti's vessel, off the coast of Italy; they were lost off the coast of Somalia. When the great tsunami of 2004 struck the Somali coast, it dumped and smashed open thousands of barrels on the beaches and in villages up to 10km inland. According to the United Nations, they contained clinical waste from western hospitals, heavy metals, other chemical junk and nuclear waste. People started suffering from unusual skin infections, bleeding at the mouth, acute respiratory infections and abdominal haemorrhages. The barrels had been dumped in the sea, a UN spokesman said, for one obvious reason: it cost European companies around $2.50 a tonne to dispose of the waste this way, while dealing with them properly would have cost "something like $1,000 a tonne." On the seabed off Somalia lies Europe's picture of Dorian Gray: the skeleton in the closet of the languid new world we have made.
The only people who have sought physically to stop this dumping are Somali pirates.