Hong Kong orders suspected toxic waste ship to return to Romania

Hong Kong orders suspected toxic waste ship to return to Romania
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest November 10, 2016

The Hong Kong authorities have ordered Orient Overseas Container Line (OCCL) shipping company to return 123 containers suspected of containing toxic waste to Romania. 

The OOCL Charleston reportedly left the Romanian port of Constanta with 2,723 tonnes of suspected toxic waste on board in December 2015. Since then, it has attempted to offload the cargo for dumping at various Asian ports, only to fail repeatedly over the year. 

On November 5, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department (EPD) urged OCCL to remove the 123 containers it is currently holding at Hong Kong’s main cargo terminal Kwai Chung, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on November 9. The shipping company was told to return them to the the port of origin, apparently Constanta in Romania. 

OOCL had confirmed on November 8 it had agreed to comply with EPD’s requests, but has not yet confirmed a sailing schedule, SCMP reported.

Many details, including whether the cargo is toxic and the actual port of origin remain unclear, but evidently the minerals alarmed the authorities in Hong Kong and other Asian countries, and they want them sent back to Romania.

The EPD took samples on October 3 and October 26, and tested 10 of the containers. Tests carried out so far have only identified the presence of lead, copper, zinc and iron, and the radiation level is normal. However, the authorities in both Hong Kong and Malaysia suspect they could contain toxic waste.

“Inside the containers are many fibrous sacks, which contained dry, odourless, rock-like solid substances. The Environmental Protection Department’s test results show that those substance’s composition matches with the reports of Copper Matte type of minerals, mainly formed of lead, copper, zinc and iron,” Hong Kong’s EPD was quoted saying in Oriental Daily’s report quoted by themalaymailonline.com  and dated November 4. Further tests would be conducted to examine the content of toxic substances such as arsenic and cadmium, the department spokesman said and promised to announced them shortly.

Malaysia’s Department of Environment (DOE) reported in early November that an OOCL vessel carrying eight containers or 177 tonnes of mining waste - believed to contain the toxins arsenic and cadmium - was banned access to Port Klang on October 29. It had immediately been ordered to turn back to its last port of call, Hong Kong, themalaymailonline.com reported. The other 115 containers were still in Hong Kong at that time.

Hong Kong’s EPD said that in September it had initiated an investigation after receiving tip-offs, and discovered that a cargo of 123 containers reportedly containing “copper matte” had been exported from Romania and would pass by China to reach Hong Kong before arrangements to transfer them elsewhere. 

Copper mate is a by-product obtained in the process of producing copper, beside the copper itself and the slag, by melting the copper ore. The matte can be further processed to obtain “blister copper”. Depending on the quality of the ore, copper matte is classified as more or less toxic and its transportation and storage must comply with adequate reporting and safety standards according to toxicity. The containers are believed to contain hazardous substances including arsenic and cadmium. 

However, Chinese officials said they had not refused access to the 123 containers on grounds of toxicity - an event that should have been reported in advance to the next port on the route of the ship. In fact, no such notification was sent along the ship’s route because no test to prove toxicity had been carried out.

bne IntelliNews has established that OOCL Charleston indeed returned to Hong Kong on November 5, after three arrivals at Port Klang in Malaysia and one in Singapore during October. Although OCCL had been urged to return the ship to Romania, in fact it left Hong Kong on November 6 to reach Xiamen port in China - a location where the ship had previously attempted to unload - on November 7. After this, the ship left China and is currently heading toward Tokyo, where it is expected to arrive on November 11. 

Further questions have been raised about the origin of the waste and the ship’s port of origin. 

The fact that OOCL Charleston has still not returned to Constanta nearly one year after its departure - if the ship has ever been in Constanta as it declared - seems to indicate that the load was not taken under fully transparent procedures that would have allowed the settlement of the operation one way or another.

The statement that the port of origin is Constanta indicates links to the waste import scandals in the country. Romania has significant copper resources, but the only two copper producers are controlled by the state. They are more likely to defer the elimination of waste, at the risk of paying fines, rather seeking to export it illegally. 

This raises suspicions that the waste in fact originates from another country with tighter environmental regulations. In Romania, the cost of disposing of waste is around one tenth of the cost in Western Europe, and as a result importing (or re-exporting) Western waste is a lucrative business. The nature of the toxic waste carried by OOCL Charleston indicates it could be from a more developed European country like Italy and Germany. 

Indeed imports of waste from Italy and more recently from Germany have been reported in Romania but not thoroughly documented. There have been several scandals related to the import of toxic waste to Romania, culminating with two ships being restricted from accessing the port of Constanta in 2013. 

Most of the waste imported to Romania was municipal, not industrial, waste. The municipal waste was declared to be burned by Romanian cement makers and refineries, but in many cases it was simply deposited in Romania. The waste business was particularly developed by Italian Camorra that found a way to get rid of the toxic waste in Romania where the legislation was insufficient and the fees for waste disposal were lower.

The port of Constanta is used by exporters from many European countries hence the source of the toxic waste, if it is not from Romania, cannot be easily traced. 

However, there is a large-scale deposit for toxic and non toxic waste near Constanta. Last year, Italian investor Marway Fertilchim unexpectedly won a court battle, gaining the right to build a waste deposit close to Navodari, between Constanta port and the Rompetrol Rafinare refinery, despite locals’ protests. The Italian purchased fertiliser producer Fertilchim Navodari in 1999 and used the dismantled facility to develop a huge open air waste deposit. The mayor who endorsed the project was jailed for taking a bribe, but the European Court of Human Rights still allowed the Italian investor to go ahead with the project.