STRASBOURG - Pressure is mounting on the EU to criminalise violations of environmental laws as MEPs on Wednesday (25 October) voiced outrage over a recent incident in which EU toxic waste killed people on the Ivory Coast.
Twelve people died this summer in the neighbourhood of Abidjan and up to 85,000 needed medical treatment, the UN says, after a 50,000 tonne tanker, the Probo Koala, discharged 528 cubic metres of "chemical slops" in the region.
Netherlands-based commodities trader Trafigura had chartered the Greek-owned ship to carry gasoline from Estonia to Nigeria in a routine operation which ended in the tragedy and the arrest of two Trafigura staff in Abidjan.
"The tragic incident in the Ivory Coast is just the tip of the iceberg," EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said in Strasbourg ahead of a vote on Thursday on a parliamentary resolution saying the EU must close loopholes in environmental law.
The commissioner explained that 51 percent of EU waste shipments in 2005 were found to be illegal, with Brussels set to table new legislation by the end of the year on criminal penalties for illegal shipment of waste.
"[Environmental crimes] can pose a serious risk to the environment and human health," the Greek commissioner said. "And we are determined to take all measures to fight it."
"Africa is becoming the toxic dumping ground for developed countries," Danish green MEP Margrete Auken said in Wednesday's debate.
"The absence of regulations in most African countries on hazardous waste…makes it all the more important that the European Commission ensures its own waste shipment rules are properly enforced."
Swedish green MEP Carl Schlyter added "There must be a thorough investigation and the commission must take legal action against any member state found to have contravened the waste shipment regulation."
Trafigura mounts defence
Meanwhile, the Dutch company at the heart of the scandal - Trafigura - is fighting to clear its name and to get its two executives, Claude Dauphin and Jean-Pierre Valentini, out of jail in Africa.
The firm says the slops were pumped in Abidjan on 20 August from the Probo Koala into road-going tankers owned by "a government-certified company...under the routine supervision" of port authorities.
"The slops did not contain active hydrogen sulphide as has also been alleged," the firm said in a statement, explaining that the deadly mixture consisted of spent caustic soda, gasoline residues and water.
"What happened to the slops after they were offloaded from the ship, and the circumstances of the deaths and injuries which have been linked with them, are matters for the Ivorian investigations."
At the moment, national governments have no obligation to take breaches of EU environment law seriously - something which has deeply frustrated the commission, which prides itself on the high environmental standards it is trying to achieve for the bloc.
Several member states, including Germany, France and the UK, opposed the commission in 2001 when it originally proposed that certain breaches of environment law be deemed criminal offences.
But a decision in the European Court of Justice last year overruled the member states, boosting the commission's powers by giving it the right to tell EU capitals to impose criminal sanctions for offences against EU law.
Mindful of the hostile reaction likely in some member states, the commission insists that it does not want to create a community criminal code and says it shall only use such legislation for "serious" offences.
The new proposal mentioned by Mr Dimas will fall under the co-decision procedure giving both parliament and member states a voice in the bill.