Even though the rumored hazardous toxic waste dumps in the Gulf of Aden are yet to receive press attention, are the anti-piracy campaigns in these waters a veritable occupational hazard?
By: Ringo Bones
Ever since the extensive press coverage of the dramatic rescue of the Maersk Alabama’s skipper Capt. Richard Phillips from the clutches of bloodthirsty Somali pirates by a US Navy SEAL team highlighted the growing danger of piracy on commercial maritime traffic on the Gulf of Aden. The world’s press had yet to highlight another serious – yet relatively underreported threat – lurking in the waters off the Somali coast. Namely the menace posed by illegally dumped hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes.
United Nations envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said there is “reliable information” that European and Asian companies are illegally dumping hazardous toxic chemical wastes, including radioactive wastes, off the Somali coastline. Which could explain why a majority of the Somali pirates are former fisherman who can no longer eke-out a living from their regular fishing grounds due to the environmental destruction caused by the illegal dumping of these toxic chemical and radioactive wastes.
Even though the evidence of this illegal dumping can be traced as far back as 20 years ago, it was the tsunami of December 26, 2004 that literally dumped the evidence of such illegally dumped toxic chemical and radioactive wastes on the beaches of northern Somalia. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of illegally dumped toxic chemical wastes on the shores of Puntland.
UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall states that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a “frightening activity” that has been going on for more than a decade. The bad news is, is that the UNEP cannot simply send a team of scientists to evaluate and report on the extent of toxic chemical and radioactive waste contamination on the shores of Puntland in Somalia because of the on-going conflict. And the team of scientists could easily be kidnapped, taken hostage then held for ransom by lawless elements running free in Somalia.
Conflict zones and areas with on-going civil war are an attractive site for cheap illegal hazardous toxic chemical waste dumps by highly organized transnational criminal gangs because of the breakdown in the rule of law. The Lebanese civil war of the 1980s has literally mounds of evidence of illegally dumped toxic wastes across the countryside brought there by transnational criminal gangs with enough money to bribe underpaid and overworked government officials to look the other way. These criminal gangs usually charge around US$2.50 per tonne to dump someone’s hazardous waste illegally without questions asked. Given that it costs on average US$1,000 per tonne to legally dispose off hazardous wastes, its no wonder why these criminal gangs are literally making a killing in disposing hazardous wastes in the world’s ungovernable conflict zones.
Given that the war risk insurance and kidnap coverage premiums issued by insurance brokers to maritime shipping firms plying in the Gulf of Aden recently rose by tenfold due to the increase in pirate activity. Shipping firms plying in the Gulf of Aden are now facing risks on two fronts. From the obvious occupational hazards and risks posed by pirates and the other less obvious – but nonetheless grave threat – the occupational health hazards and risks posed by the hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes being illegally dumped in the Gulf of Aden.
Various military personnel policing these waters could face occupational health risks comparable to that faced by allied troops in Operation Desert Storm of 1991. The world’s navies policing the Gulf of Aden could suffer a 21st Century version of the Gulf War Syndrome, especially if their operations involve swimming without any protective gear in these waters. Maybe Capt. Richard Phillips and the US Navy SEAL team who rescued him needs to be examined for toxic chemical waste and radioactive waste exposure since they swam a number of times in the waters of the Gulf of Aden with nary a protective gear. Especially for radioactive cesium 137 which is the most common illegally dumped radioactive waste.