Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ships, Toxic Waste, and The Mob

With the high cost of storage and disposal of pharmaceutical, chemical, and other industrial waste, it's not surprising that organized crime might get involved in the illegal disposal of such material: the potential savings to unscrupulous operators run into the thousands of dollars per ton. When that material is being transported on a ship, the easiest method of disposal is obvious: just sink the ship or shipping container holding the waste.

This is exactly what happened to 39 ships in the Mediterranean between 1979 and 1995, according to Massimo Scalia, an investigator in Italy quoted in Scientific American. In the same country, the newspaper il Manifesto dug even deeper and found a series of incidents leading up until 2001, with as many as 20 being called "extremely suspicious." Scalia says an average of two ships a year disappeared under suspicious circumstances in the 1980s and early '90s, and the total increases to nine per year after that.

Because finding such wrecks is expensive, little hard data exists as to locations and materials in such vessels and containers. But there are some notorious examples that have come to light. The most famous is the case of the Rosso (pictured above)which washed ashore on Italy's west coast after what officials believe is a failed attempt to scuttle the vessel. Someone tried to offload and bury the cargo and paint the ship to hide its markings. Local authorities in Calabria detected what appeared to nuclear reactor waste buried in concrete blocks and leaching into the local water table.

In another case, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami washed sunken shipping containers onto beaches in Somalia. Fumes from the containers hospitalized and killed many locals, according to a United Nations report.

The 'Ndrangheta ("valiant and defiant") organized crime organization, based in Calabria, is blamed for much of the dumping both in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. An informant led Italian authorities to one wreck in 2009. If true, the criminals may be poisoning their own well: Calabria has recently seen in increase in some cancers and in cancer-related deaths.

For an interactive map of suspected Mediterranean Sea toxic waste ship sinkings, including ship and cargo particulars, see the in fondo al mar (under the sea) website here.

For the United Nations Environmental Program report on the tsunami response, click here. Many sources have blamed toxic contamination of Somali fishing grounds for the rise of piracy in the area. For more, see this 2008 al Jazeera report here.

For the February 2010 Scientific American article "Poisoned Shipments: Are Strange, Illicit Sinkings Making the Mediterranean Toxic?" click here.

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