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