TALLINN - A team of investigators from the Ivory Coast is due to arrive in Estonia this week to inspect the Probo Koala, a ship suspected of dumping toxic waste in the impoverished African nation. The Probo Koala remains under the guard of Estonian authorities in Paldiski Port, where it was seized on Sept. 28.
The vessel was first blockaded by activists onboard the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, who painted anti-toxic waste slogans on its bow.
Estonian port officials were at first reluctant to investigate the Probo Koala, telling reporters the ship had already passed port inspections.
However, late last week they detained the ship upon diplomatic request from the Ivory Coast, which is undertaking an inquest into the recent dumping of toxic waste in the city of Abidjan.
Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo said that a seven-person team had been dispatched to Estonia. Gbagbo has also appointed a judge to head an investigation commission into the Probo Koala dump.
An estimated eight people have died and tens of thousands have fallen seriously ill since the Probo Koala spilled a highly poisonous cocktail of petrochemical waste and caustic soda across Abidjan in August. Some media reports have placed the death toll as high as 19, while other reports say 85,000 Ivorians have sought medical assistance following exposure to the waste.
The sludge was transported to the Ivory Coast onboard the Probo Koala, a Greek-owned Panamanian-flagged tanker that was chartered by Dutch oil and metal trading company Trafigura.
The owners of the Probo Koala claim they are not responsible because their ship was merely under charter from Trafigura. Trafigura has in turn blamed an Ivorian company called Tommy which was paid to dispose of the waste. Environmentalists say all three companies are responsible for the tragedy.
The European Commission, Dutch, Greek, Ivorian and Estonian authorities are now all involved in separate investigations into the ship.
On Sept. 28, Stavros Dimas, the European Commission member responsible for environmental issues, made a visit to Paldiski to thank Greenpeace for its efforts.
"Such highly toxic waste should have never left the European Union. European and international laws were broken. There is no excuse for it. What happened was not only unethical in the most profound sense of the word, but it was criminal. What is more, I fear that the Probo Koala incident is only the tip of the iceberg," Dimas said.
"European governments need to be more aware of what is happening in their harbors and on their ships, and what needs to be done to prevent another such disaster."
Estonia's Justice Minister Rein Lang said the Probo Koala would remain impounded at the Paldiski port until not a vestige of doubt remained about its safety.
"We cannot allow a ship carrying toxic substances to leave Estonia for destinations unknown," Lang said.
Greenpeace, for its part, claimed victory for having forced the authorities to take action through the blockade.
"This will spark a full international inquiry into all of the companies and regulatory agencies which failed to stop the dumping," a Greenpeace spokeswoman said.
The Arctic Sunrise ended its three-day campaign on Sept. 28 when the Probo Koala was seized, and returned to sail the Baltic Sea to continue its campaign about over-fishing.