By Ben Edokpayi/Special To The African Times-USA
In 2017, while at work as a Public Information Officer for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, DTSC-CalEPA, and almost three decades after a collaboration between an Italian Politician and a Nigerian-American journalist, on what was the biggest expose on environmental hazards in Africa from the west, I got an email from Enrico Falqui, a Green Peace member who is also a well-known member of the European Parliament.
It was certainly a pleasant surprise and a tactful reminder from my Professor friend that our environmental advocacy, which helped to spotlight Africa as a dumping ground for toxic waste, was an unfinished project, that had also boomeranged on his homeland.
In his email sent to me at work, Falqui, now a retired Florence Counselor and adjunct Environmental Science Professor at the local University, wrote: “Dear Benjamin, It was a delightful surprise for me to be reconnected with you and good memories of my past. After the important experience in the European Parliament, I was elected to the Senate of the Italian Republic and I have been working there until 1999…Actually, I’m very close to being retired and I am very concerned about a new struggle for my country, the challenge of landscape that has been injured and irreversibly damaged in many regions of my country from urban growth and illegal settlements. Nature and space in Italy became very fast, a declining resource and in urban and metropolitan systems, public space became a ghost, ‘said the European Parliament member.
In cryptic terms, he added “actually I am a vice-Director of DIDA LAB in the matter of Open Urban Spaces Design and I lead an international Network of 16 Landscape Architecture Departments located in 12 European Countries. Urban Space, in many Italian cities, became “toxic” or “rare”; therefore, I could say that I am still working on “wastes”, not material products, but natural and fragmented spaces coming from the anarchy of urban growth.”
Interestingly, this missive from an old friend was at a time when Italy and Nigeria, experienced another virulent resurgence and health scare from the scourge of toxic wastes.
In Nigeria, 30 years after I exclusively traveled to Pisa to investigate this dangerous clandestine trade, which became one of the dominant stories in the Nigerian press between 2017 and 2018. It was like the Koko port toxic wastes dumping déjà vu again. Painfully aware that Nigerian authorities are notorious for having stark disregard for policies that curb environmental scofflaws, I read with trepidation of a sordid replay of the 1988 incident which I exclusively reported on from Pisa with the help of an Italian journalist, Racaella Gonnalli.
In 2017, the location was the same, and toxic cargo, some say even more hazardous especially to children and the vulnerable members of the local population, and detailed in a March 2018 report by one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, Punch, titled: “Koko Community Can Never Recover from 1988 Toxic Waste Saga”
What stood out in the interview with Professor Lucky Akaruese, an Academician at the University of Port Harcourt and the National President, Committee for the DE fence of Human Rights, was his retort when asked whether Koko Port area residents have recovered from the 1988 Dump, “It is not possible (for them to fully recover from the incident). Recall that I said that recently, another dump by a local company was experienced in Koko and NOSDRA has confirmed the toxicity, but urging that the institutional courier, that is Ebenco Limited, should be given time to evacuate; without caring about where same should be taken. With this new incident, the pains of the 1987/8 experience have further been compounded, with the recent one being at the fore,” he told the reporter.
The renowned environmentalist added: “People there still remember with pains all that they passed through, particularly that some individuals benefitted from their misfortune through the worst form of this incredible inhumanity.”
Thirty years later, the long term effects from 1998 in Koko Port in the Delta State of Nigeria are clearly undefined because of a central government that does not consider the environment a top priority, and the myriad health, economic and environmental impacts could only get worse, a situation exacerbated by a recent World Bank Post Covid-19 report. “Nationally, 40 percent of Nigerians (83 million people) live below the poverty line, while another 25 percent (53 million) are vulnerable. With COVID-19, many of these 53 million vulnerable people could fall into poverty. The magnitude of the health impact depends on the duration and the domestic spread of the outbreak, while the economic impact hinges on oil prices,” reports the World Bank about the most populous black nation in the World. Nigeria’s Population in the most recent WB Report is 202 Million, which according to the African Development Bank, makes up approximately twenty percent of the populace of Africa. https://www.afdb.org/en
But does the West care about a long-term effect from the dump of toxic wastes in Africa and a twisted narrative?
Interestingly, revelations in Italy at about the same time revealed that a new dump was discovered in Koko Port in the Niger Delta basin is the more reason why there should be global concern and adherence to the UN Basel Convention which was inspired by my exclusive on-the-spot 1988 Investigation of the Pisa Wastes. The 2017 Politico report was particularly nightmarish in an area identified as Italy’s “Triangle of Death” because children were the primary victims. And I think this was the call to action and support from my friend, Professor Enrico Falqui when he contacted me at Cal-EPA in 2017. In that email, he said, “ I am very concerned about a new struggle for my country, the challenge of Landscape that has been injured and irreversibly damaged in many regions of my country from urban growth and illegal settlements.”
Falqui’s concern for his nation, which has had more casualties than any other EU Nation at the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic was highlighted in a Politico report that revealed findings from Italy’s National Health Institute that established a link between decades of illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste in the Campania region around Naples and a high rate of cancerous tumors, especially among children.
The report is aptly titled “The Mafia, Mozzarella and Italy’s “Triangle of Death.” https://www.politico.eu/article/mafia-mozzarella-and-land-of-fires-mafia-italy-cancer-campania/
“A WHO expert said that link was crucial to counter attempts to play down the risk. Those who tried to deny the urgency of the situation have often said that the dumping occurred decades ago and so the situation did not pose a current threat to public health,” Marco Martuzzi, a World Health Organization Program Manager for environmental health risk assessment said in a Politico interview.
The journal added that “ despite the consensus among public health officials that the situation is dangerous, some officials still deny a link. One such official and top Italian prosecutor, Raffaele Cantone, in an interview with the newspaper IL Foglio, called “The connection between buried waste and the onset of tumors overstretched.”
But toxic waste is toxic waste no matter the spin, no matter how well it is sugar-coated or mixed or camouflaged with flour and eggs. Or no matter where in what shape or form it is found.
From old computer frames shipped as e-waste, PCB-laden drums from Chemical plants in Europe and those unregulated wastes from different Asian countries, the concern on the deadly impact of these environmental hazards on the environment, children and vulnerable population is real.
And now the concern is that many African nations with no comprehensive environmental policies face catastrophe. And the problem could include clandestine medical devices that should have been waste, which ends up in Africa as a large PCB-laden container.
As the pioneer Public Information Officer, between 2015 and 2018, for the state of California’s Safer Consumer Products (SCP) program, my decades-long environmental advocacy, that started in 1986 with a trip to investigate the deadly Lake Nyos noxious fumes, was put to good use by California, as I became more conscious, up close, of the urgency and importance of environmental protection programs, such as the Safer Consumer Protection, SCP, program, whose main priority is to protect the children and vulnerable population (that includes the deaf and dumb) in the state of California from indoor and outdoor hazardous substances.
But in Africa, where these stringent regulations do not exist, there is a clear and present danger, especially for the transboundary shipment of hazardous wastes.
Two years after Lake Nyos limnic eruption in the Central African nation of Cameroon, I traveled to Pisa, Italy to exclusively investigate the shipment of toxic wastes to African countries, an endeavor which triggered the UN Basel Convention, a law that includes the United States of America!
One of the incidents which led to the creation of the Basel Convention was the Khian Sea waste disposal incident, in which a ship carrying incinerator ash from the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States, dumped half of its load on a beach in Haiti before being forced away.
That vessel sailed for many months, changing its name several times.
Unable to unload the cargo in any port, the crew was believed to have dumped much of their waste at sea.
Of course, the one that is of concern to Africa and people of African extraction is still the 1988 Koko Port case in which five ships transported 8,000 barrels of hazardous waste from Italy to Koko seaport in Nigeria in exchange for $100 monthly rent which was paid to an illiterate Nigerian for the use of his farmland.
In hindsight now, I think it was fortuitous to be the pioneer Information Officer for the SCP program which has a special focus on indoor and outdoor pollutants that could be especially hazardous to our children and vulnerable population.
I have seen up close in America as well, how environmental hazards can be terminally hazardous to minors.
At DTSC, I was fortunate to work with lead international environmental experts like Dr. Meredith Williams, who is now the acting director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Karl Palmer, Deputy Director of the SCP Program, and Senior Environmental Scientists at DTSC, Andre Algazi, and Daphne Molin.
In addition, I also facilitated media awareness events of foreign delegations that visited California to understudy the Pioneer SCP program. That included delegations from China, Abu Dhabi, and New Zealand.
I was also opportune to promote the work of the top scientists and business executives, from across the nation, in the state’s innovative Green Ribbon Science panel, after former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a Green Chemistry Law in 2008.
The Green Ribbon Science Panel acts as a resource and provides advice to the Department of Toxic Substances Control on a variety of scientific and technical matters related to developing green chemistry and chemicals policy recommendations & implementation strategies.
So, after my fortuitous and pioneer work with DTSC, what is the takeaway?
That the lack of urgency on environmental protection initiatives is still an extremely serious problem for the developing world and minority population in America.
Think Flint, Michigan! And it is quite clear that we are all endangered. Which is why the United Nations must add teeth to the UN Basel Convention established in 1989 after my investigative report from Italy on the clandestine shipment of toxic wastes from the West to African Nations.
At a crucial 2018 UN Environmental Program conference in Cote d’Ivoire, a powerful statement was made by the UN. It reads: “We have a collective responsibility to safeguard communities from the environmental and health consequences of hazardous waste dumping,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Executive Director of UN Environment. “The creation of regional Public-Private Partnerships could lead to the creation of adequate facilities to manage hazardous waste internally generated in Africa. Previous experiences have led us to establish these international treaties around chemical waste, and together we must ensure they continue to be adhered to.”
Established one year after the Koko incident, the UN Basel Convention “ prevents the shipment and disposal of hazardous waste from industrial to developing countries. This international treaty establishes a procedure of strict requirements and consents of any transboundary movement of hazardous waste,” and is an important foundation for the UN’s Goals for Sustainable Goals for Development of All Member Nations. https://sdgs.un.org/goals
Ben Edokpayi, a pioneer writer/contributor of The African Times-USA is now a senior contributing editor with this media organization and is based in California’s Bay Area.