The Stinking Ship is a groundbreaking documentary that chronicles the humanitarian catastrophe that occurred after a Swiss-based oil and commodity shipping company unloaded its cargo of toxic waste in the middle of the largest city in Cote d’Ivoire, causing one of the worst environmental crises of the last decade.
At the same time, the film also reveals how a corporation with revenues twice as large as that of Cote d’Ivoire was able to pay off the local government and muscle the British media from reporting on the disaster and subsequent cover-up.
The Stinking Ship begins in medias res, in the middle of things. The film opens with a shot of the Probo Koala, an oil tanker carrying over 500 tons of toxic waste. On August 19th, under the cover of night, the ship crept into the Port of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and then departed just as quickly. Almost immediately, residents of the coastal city began complaining of a foul stench emanating from within their city. Within days, at least 15 people had died, 23 were hospitalized, and a further 40,000 sought medical treatment, due to headaches, nosebleeds, and stomach pains.
Relying on archival footage, confidential documents, and in-depth recollection interviews, the film traces the corporate scandal to its inception. In the early days of 2006, Trafigura, the world’s third largest oil and commodities trading company, was looking for an inexpensive way to get rid of a load of toxic waste—a mixture of fuel, caustic soda, and hydrogen sulfide—that was onboard the Probo Koala, a ship they used as a floating refinery to process dirty oil bought from Mexico.
Before settling on Africa, the Probo Koala attempted to unload its toxic cargo in several places in the US and the Mediterranean. Each attempt, however, was met with high disposal costs, strict regulations, and deep suspicion. The ship was turned away from the Netherlands after the staff reported an “incredible smell” coming from the ship, causing several illnesses.
Rebuffed by the first world, the Probo Koala then sailed to Africa. In the impoverished and neglected city of Abidjan, in Cote d’Ivoire, they “discovered” what they called “an experienced subcontractor,” a local company with a 10 day-old license and no waste handling experience. The toxic effluents were unloaded and dumped at waste dumps and roadsides across the city.
Cote d’Ivoire’s government, weakened by a decade long political turmoil had little to help its citizens.
The long-term consequences of the toxic waste on the population of Cote d’Ivoire have been catastrophic. One national newspaper dubbed the crisis “The Ivorian Chernobyl”. Since 2008, almost 200,000 people have been affected, killed, hospitalized, or permanently scarred.
Trafigura has since dismissed any responsibility, but has still paid a quarter billion dollars, most of which ($200 millions) was paid to the local government to protect the London-based company from ever being sued on African soil. Meanwhile, the oil giant has succeeded in banning the media from reporting on the catastrophe and the company’s attempt to cover it up.