Usually, I’m up to date on news from the Ivory Coast. A fragile peace is the only thing between the once prosperous country and civil war, and I have family and friends in Abidjan, the de facto capital. So I jumped when I read on October 2 that a miscreant European tanker had dumped hundreds of tons of toxic waste on the city. Eight Ivorians were dead, dozens hospitalized and tens of thousands in need of treatment.


But as I reached for the phone, concerned that the potentially fatal stench was wafting toward my loved ones, I paused and checked the story one more time. Breaking news? Not exactly. The dumping had taken place a month and half before it made the front page of the New York Times. If those I knew in Abidjan had been affected, I was overdue for a call. I’d had no idea they were in any more danger than usual.


The Times story was the most in-depth and cogent piece of reporting to reach U.S. readers. But then, it was only the second American byline outside the Associated Press. Its headline, “Global Sludge Ends in Tragedy for Ivory Coast,” hints at the story’s long metamorphosis as it migrated across the Atlantic Ocean. By the time it got here, it had expanded from African and European news to “a dark tale of globalization.” And a tricky one at that.


When the story broke, the Times’ West Africa correspondent, Lydia Polgreen, was in Darfur, and urged her editors in New York to run a wire piece about the dumping. “If I had been in the region I might have gotten to the story earlier, but I am not sure how much would have been gained by reporting earlier, when fewer details were known and the story was just emerging,” Polgreen wrote in an e-mail. For the October 2 article, Polgreen and Hague correspondent Marlise Simons, who co-authored the piece, were able to trace the sludge to July 2, when a bedraggled tanker carrying a “highly toxic cocktail of petrochemical waste and caustic soda” came to port in Amsterdam en route to Estonia. The ship’s name was the Probo Koala, and its identity was convoluted. According to Polgreen and Simons, it was “a Greek-owned tanker flying a Panamanian flag and leased by the London branch of a Swiss trading corporation whose fiscal headquarters are in the Netherlands.”


In the Netherlands, Amsterdam Port Services attempted to unload the tanker’s malodorous brew, but discovered it was more toxic, and that there was more of it, than the Dutch company leasing the boat, Trafigura, let on. When the bill for unloading and safely processing the waste grew, Trafigura balked and the Dutch authorities allowed the Probo Koala to cast off toward Estonia, still full. According to Polgreen and Simons, some sludge that had already been pumped off, was pumped back on. A couple months later, the ship dumped its venomous cargo in the Ivory Coast.


The complexity of the tanker’s meanderings, and their link to the death and sickness in Abidjan, took weeks to piece together. The first reports were local advisories on Ivorian television. “You may have smelled strong odors in Abidjan over the past few days,” warned an August 26 broadcast, translated by the BBC. “These odors are similar to that of cooking gas, but are actually different from cooking gas. The situation is serious, though. Actually, a foreign ship dumped its toxic waste in Ivorian waters. The Environment Ministry is investigating into the issue.”


On September 6, Radio Cote d’Ivoire announced that Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo had ordered his authorities to address the situation. The story grew regional, and the wire services lit up like a fireworks show. The Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Deutsche Presse-Agentur and the Baltic News Services began to unravel the story’s many threads. Authorities and reporters fingered the Probo Koala right away, but little was known about its fateful voyages.


On September 8, the tanker turned up in a Latvian port and news coverage became intercontinental in scope. Four days later, the Associated Press ran its first report, after Dutch authorities announced they were launching an investigation of Trafigura’s relationship with Tommy, the Ivorian company that unloaded and dumped the tanker’s sludge in West Africa. Between September 13 and 15, wire services quoted European doctors announcing that contamination around Abidjan was worse than expected and that more dumping had occurred than authorities originally believed. Shortly after the announcements, the Probo Koala turned up in Estonia and violent protests swept through the streets of Abidjan.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.