The Meandering Life of a Toxic Sludge Story

As American news organizations cut back on foreign coverage, stories like a toxic spill sickening people in the Ivory Coast must travel a strange route stateside.

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.

Finally, the story built up enough momentum to jump the Atlantic without the aid of a news wire. On September 16, Los Angeles Times’ correspondent Robyn Dixon was the first to produce a byline for an American paper. Like Polgreen, Dixon was in another in part of her vast beat, Zambia, when the story broke in Abidjan. “I kept an eye on the Ivory Coast issue and some others while I was there and made a point of filing on the sludge story after my return,” Dixon wrote in an e-mail. Hands full, she filed the story from the Johannesburg bureau. “I realized the deadlines for [another] project made it impossible for me to actually get to Ivory Coast, which left me the difficult choice of filing the story from here.” Still too early to lay the toxic waste in global hands, the article ran on page five. But it kicked off more coverage in U.S. media. CNN and National Public Radio (NPR) both broadcast stories about the pollution and sickness in Abidjan soon after the L.A. Times article ran. Then American media fell silent for a couple of weeks.

The wires continued too chronicle the details of the story as they unfolded. Two days after Dixon’s report, Ivorian authorities arrested two of Trafigura’s executives. On September 19, the United Nations accused Trafigura of breaking international agreements about handling and disposal of hazardous materials. Major clean-up operations were launched shortly thereafter and on September 20, the Associated Press and Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the German news wire, revealed the Probo Koala’s stop in Amsterdam in July, before the dumping. Coverage branched out even further a week later, when Ivory Coast asked Estonian officials to block the Probo Koala from leaving the port at Paldiski. A few days later, the European Union’s environment commissioner spoke in Estonia, vowing to shore up shipping regulations and bring the polluters to justice.

As more information spilled out, the first English language newspaper to break 1,000 words was The Independent in London on September 21. In depth, its report was only to be outdone by the New York Times on October 2. By then, Ivorian and European inspectors were on their way to Estonia to examine the Probo Koala and question its crew. A month and a half after the tanker dumped its waste on Abidjan, the story had finally emerged in all its global relevance.

“In this case, I think waiting to do a larger piece as all the elements came together was actually a good call,” Polgreen wrote in an e-mail. “If I had gone right after the dumping, it would still have been an important story, but the elements that pushed it onto the front page emerged later.” But the clarity and obvious intrigue of the New York Times article made its sudden appearance all the more startling. Ivorians had swallowed the dregs of globalization’s toxic mash and only two major papers had devoted a correspondent to the story. Weeks passed before reporters sorted out the sordid web of connections knotted together in Abidjan. At the time of this writing, many details remain unclear. In last week’s article, Polgreen and Simons revealed allegations that the Probo Koala had acted as an illegal, floating refinery in the Mediterranean Sea last summer, while global gas prices were soaring. Since then, Deutsche Presse-Agentur has reported that analyses of the tanker, still in Estonia, have supported those accusations.

This week, media attention shifted back to Africa. News wires reported Monday that residents around the port of Abidjan protested plans to store waste cleaned up from dumps at the facility. They temporarily blocked trucks transporting waste into the port. To date, ten people from Dutch Trafigura and Ivorian Tommy are in custody. But that may change. Numerous investigations are under way in Europe and Africa. The Los Angeles Times’ and New York Times’ articles were impressive work from foreign correspondents who are asked to cover a lot of ground. But the time it took for what was, ostensibly, “breaking news” to actually break — in any mass sense — for American readers, is another illustration of the U.S. media’s costly retreat from foreign lands.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.