Probo Koala: No poison, and nobody died

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When the tanker Probo Koala dumped its cargo of chemical waste near the Ivorian port of Abidjan it caused huge consternation. Local media claimed that 17 Ivorian citizens had died as a result of the ‘toxic waste’. Reporter Jaffe Vink wrote a book in which he reaches the conclusion that the illegally dumped waste was harmful but not toxic. And nobody died.

A course in elementary chemistry would not have been wasted on journalists and environmental activists alike. That could have been one of the recommendations included in Jaffe Vink’s book Het Gifschip (The Poison Ship). In it, he dissects the image that was created by the media regarding the Probo Koala affair. His main conclusion: the toxic substance that was allegedly dumped near Abidjan could never have been produced in the hold of the Probo Koala or even in the open air.

All hell broke loose in August 2006 when a local Ivorian company dumped tonnes of waste from the Probo Koala near Abidjan:

"An incredible nauseating stench, really terrible. It made people sick, gave them headaches and caused nausea. That much is clear. But: it was not toxic."

He argues that the stench was caused by mercaptans; sulphurous substances which occur naturally in oil.

In the ensuing panic, people quickly started using words like ‘toxic’, ‘toxic waste’ and ‘poison ship.’ More detailed information about the substances that had been released was ignored.

“The media failed to pick up on that. They kept focusing on the widespread panic, on people getting sick. And all kinds of rumours started flying around, about radio activity: ‘ le Petit Chernobyl’, local media exaggerated what was happening and their reports were also copied by Dutch media” ’

The owner of the Probo Koala, the oil trading company Trafigura (with its headquarters in the Netherlands) eventually decided to pay compensation to the victims, but still denies that it had toxic waste dumped in Ivory Coast. When he was writing his book, Jaffe Vink investigated the ‘main suspect’ among the toxic substances the Probo Koala allegedly dumped: the highly toxic gas hydrogen sulphide (H2S). His conclusion.

“Hydrogen sulphide could not have been present in the waste material because it was very alkaline, its pH value was about 14. It is a technical point but important to know. Hydrogen sulphide as a toxic gas can only be produced when the pH value is at, or below 7.”

According to Mr VInk the waste material would have had to be diluted 10 million times, “half the North Sea,” to allow for the production of hydrogen sulphide.

In his book Mr Vink is highly critical of environmental organisation Greenpeace. However, the organisation argues that Mr Vink

“Ignores the scandalous fact that a disreputable multinational dumps its dangerous waste in the cheapest way possible in an African metropolis, intentionally taking the risk of inflicting damage on the environment and endangering the health of its inhabitants. The court, society and Greenpeace put the blame squarely on Trafigura.”

In its reaction, Greenpeace did not address Mr Vink’s conclusions about the alleged presence of toxic hydrogen sulphide in the Probo Koala’s controversial cargo.