Pollution Monitoring & Control – Review of the Year 2006

2006 was blighted by a steady stream of pollution incidents, from major oil spills to clouds of toxic smog hanging over vast global regions, but will be remembered as the year in which a government was, for the first time, brought down by an environmental scandal.

Perhaps inevitably, China’s break-neck race for economic growth came with a high environmental cost. Countless spills and the discovery of dozens of serious breeches of the country’s already-lax environmental protection laws (see related story) were eclipsed by the huge rise in emissions as the industrial juggernaut gathered pace.

Towards the end of the year, however, the country’s environmental watchdogs began to show teeth, though it will be this year when we discover if there is a bite behind the bark (see related story).

When it came to legislation and political mechanisms to protect the planet, the EU’s Emissions Trading System may have boasted the most column inches, but it was the proposed Regulation, Evaluation and Assessment of Chemicals (REACH) laws that caused the most headaches and late nights in Brussels.

REACH, which boasts the dubious honour of being the most complicated piece of legislation ever to come out of Europe, had offered high hopes of protecting the environment and human health but after years of intensive lobbying by both environmentalists and industrialists concerned that overly-restrictive laws could cripple the chemical sector, the final result is a compromise which satisfies both sides but pleases neither (see related story).

An environmental incident was, for the first time, blamed for the fall of a government when the Prime Minister of the Ivory Coast dissolving his administration following a scandal over toxic waste being dumped in the country’s capital (related story).

Several people died and thousands required medical attention when local contractors hired to dispose of highly toxic waste from a European ship dumped the untreated sludge into municipal sewers and the lagoon around which the city is built.

Public disbelief at the authorities’ failure to act during the crisis, along with suggestions of corruption, were central to the PM’s stated reasons for disbanding his government, though commentators familiar with Ivorian politics suggested that the waste scandal was being used as a convenient excuse to remove a weak government following the collapse of peace talks with rebel forces.

Hong Kong’s notorious smog problems continued to plague the city, even threatening to undermine the financial foundations upon which the economic powerhouse is built, as banks began to recommend investors leave HK to choke and look for new, fresher pastures in the region (see related story).

Smog was also a continuing problem elsewhere in South East Asia, as Indonesian forest fires caused havoc in neighbouring states, leading to the closure of businesses and schools as residents were advised to stay indoors when pollutant levels peaked.

The regional problem sparked international politicking, with Indonesia’s wealthier neighbours offering support in the form of fire-fighters, equipment and cash to persuade farmers to change the habit of generations and stop torching forests to clear land (see related story).

For those wishing to pinpoint the world’s toxic hotspots, environmental NGO the Blacksmith Institute published a list of what it considered the world’s worst polluted places. Russia and the former Soviet states featured heavily in the list, managing to clinch five of the ten most contaminated spots on the planet (see related story).

2006 had its share of toxic ship scandals, with France eventually forced to abandon its attempt to dispose of an outmoded aircraft carrier by sending it to India’s poorly-equipped and dangerous breaking yards.

The ship, the Clemenceau, was eventually brought back to France after a hard-fought campaign by environmental activists and lawyers who argued that the asbestos-laden vessel should be considered toxic waste and was, as such, covered by international agreements which put responsibility for disposal squarely at the feet of the nation which produced the waste (related story).

Spurred on by the success of thwarting the French Government, campaigners then set their sights on blocking plans to scrap the SS Norway, a former cruise liner and one of the biggest passenger ships ever built.

The ship has been moored a mile off the coast at India’s infamous breaking yards of Alang since August as legal wrangles over its fate continue.

The year did not see any change to the habit of spilling large quantities of oil into the oceans and once again the only question was where, not whether, the next spill would occur.

Israel’s brief military incursion into Lebanon to seek out Hezbollah fighters had environmental, as well as human, casualties when the bombing of a Lebanese power plant led to one of the year’s most serious spills.

Storage silos at the coastal plant of Jiyyeh were holed in the air attack, sending thousands of tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the Mediterranean (see related story).

The Philippines experienced a spill less dramatic in its origins but significant in its scale, as a fully-laden oil tanker went down off the coast of Guimaras, threatening the island’s fragile eco-system and tourist injury.

Efforts to contain the spill were marred by an incident which would have been laughable were its impacts not so serious – a ship involved in the clean-up operation sunk, adding to the pollution.

Sam Bond

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