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New book revives Probo Koala toxic waste controversy

The recently published book ‘The Poison Ship’ has reignited the dispute over whether or not waste dumped in Ivory Coast by the oil tanker Probo Koala was toxic. The waste was harmless according to author Jaffe Vink, and caused no fatalities. His conclusions have not been well received in Ivory Coast’s largest city Abidjan where the incident occurred.

Probo Koala; the ship carrying the waste. Credit Photo: ANP.
Probo Koala; the ship carrying the waste. Credit Photo: ANP.
By Selay Kouassi in Abidjan and Saskia Houttuin in Amsterdam

Philosopher and writer Jaffe Vink does not mince his words, “Abidjan is a large city, and people die there every day. It’s nothing new. But in the late summer of 2006, nobody died or became seriously ill because of the Probo Koala’s waste, because it was not toxic.”

Inundated hospitals
In Ivory Coast, the conclusions of the book ‘Poison Ship’ have been met with consternation. Marvin Ouattara, chairman of Abidjan’s Union of Toxic Victims is furious: "Nonsense. That ship did kill people. Seventeen deaths have been recorded," says Ouattara while showing an agreement signed by Ivory Coast’s government and Trafigura, “it is written here in black and white.”

Dr Kimou Adepo Vincent, a doctor at the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Cocody, recounts what happened in the days immediately after the waste was dumped: “In the hospital we were inundated with sick patients. We doctors are revolted and frustrated to hear someone has written a book refuting this.”

Nobody knows
Marietta Harjono, a campaigner with Greenpeace, has followed the case closely. She strongly disagrees with Vink’s conclusions: “Nobody knows the exact composition of the waste, because Trafigura is still withholding information. They are the only ones, as producers of the waste, who can tell what the exact composition of the waste was, but they have yet to release this information.”

Vink, however, immersed himself in the world of chemistry while researching the book and claims to know enough: “The waste was not toxic,” he argues “because the Dutch forensic institute took a sample from the vessel when it was still anchored in the Netherlands. The sample indicates that the PH-levels were way too high for hydrogen sulphate to be present. Hydrogen sulphate is the gas that allegedly caused deaths in Abidjan.”

Yet to be proven
This hypothesis is incorrect according to Harjono: “The tested sample proves it was corrosive, and that components can escape from the waste and can cause serious health problems. While the actual cause of the deaths has yet to be proven, what matters is that Trafigura illegally transported and dumped the poison. Jaffe Vink did not carry out his investigations in Abidjan, but based his research solely on newspaper articles and the Trafigura trials.”

Vink however maintains his position and insists that “what matters is the chemistry study” – not whether or not he went to Abidjan.
The locals remain sceptical. "We should not judge this author so quickly,” says Laurent Kouame on the streets of Abidjan, “he probably based his conclusions on documents, though I think his story is merely based on presumption."

Source: RNW. www.rnw.nl/afrique
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