With political scandals dominating our news, I wonder how many Americans have heard about the recent deaths and injuries in Ivory Coast, attributed to the careless dumping of hazardous waste from a Greek tanker chartered to a Swiss company. The New York Times published a lengthy article on the incident, which brought down the Ivorian government and produced civil unrest and a customs strike. The episode remains something of a mystery, with the full analysis of the unidentified waste material as yet undisclosed. My experience tells me that there is more to this than has been revealed so far; the investigations under way in Europe and Africa could have far-reaching consequences for the oil and chemical industries.
When I first heard the story on BBC satellite radio news last week, the details were so sketchy that it sounded like another case of people in the developing world being injured while stealing fuel (or something they thought was fuel) that they were too poor to buy, as happens all too frequently in Nigeria. Instead, some party in a lengthy international chain of disposal dumped hazardous waste in residential neighborhoods and ordinary refuse facilities in Abidjan, rather than processing it for incineration or burying in sealed containers in a reputable toxic waste dump.
From the description in the Times, it's hard to tell precisely what this substance was. "Tank washings" from ships can be unpleasant but are rarely so toxic or noxious. The theory that the ship had been used as some sort of floating refinery, with the waste comprising the leftovers of such a process, makes even less sense. More plausibly, it could have been refinery "tank bottoms", the residue from onshore oil storage tanks that have been in service for years and accumulated sludge containing high concentrations of the worst components from literally millions of barrels of petroleum. A Dutch professor who analyzed a sample of the waste found two substances that are consistent with this interpretation: hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and mercaptan, another sulfur compound.
Exposure to high concentrations of H2S without proper safety equipment could prove fatal. However, if H2S were the culprit, I'd have thought this hazard would have been greatest for the crew of the vessel and the employees of the waste company that offloaded it. The particle filter masks typically used in waste handling--pictured in the Times--would be useless against H2S. You'd need self-contained breathing gear of the type fire departments use. With or without H2S, though, the presence of mercaptans would certainly explain the terrible smell that the witnesses described. The key chemical in a skunk's spray is a mercaptan, and synthetic versions are routinely used in low concentrations to odorize natural gas and other fuels. These are organic sulfur compounds with intense, putrid odors, but they're not considered toxic enough to kill people. Until the investigations are complete, these are reasonable guesses, but they are no substitute for knowing exactly what caused such havoc, and who is to blame.
In the meantime, it's easy to play up the victimization and collective guilt angle, because innocent people died. Those who see this as a "dark tale of globalization" are missing the equally important benefits of globalization that this sad situation demonstrates. They ignore the strides we've made in disposing of most hazardous waste in a more responsible, sustainable fashion, due to much stricter environmental and health regulations around the world. If anything, it is largely the extension and application of global standards in the developing world--something that is part and parcel of globalization--that has exposed this incident to international scrutiny and enforcement. With expanding global governance, the responsible parties can be held accountable, not just via their agents in Ivory Coast, but in their countries of incorporation and beyond. That's a serious disincentive for reckless behavior. And given the sensitivity of the EU to this sort of thing, we should see even tighter regulation of the international hazardous waste business follow.