Toxic waste ship sinks off Turkey


08 September 2004

ANKARA: A ship filled with toxic power station waste containing cancer-causing heavy metal has sunk off south-eastern Turkey.

The official centre for maritime disasters said the MV Ulla, registered in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, had sunk overnight in Iskenderun bay on Monday with 2200 tonnes of ash from power stations in Spain.

The centre said it was unclear if the vessel was leaking, but that it had enough environmentally toxic material aboard to contaminate more than 300,000 tonnes of water.

The MV Ulla had been moored in Iskenderun bay for four years. Other ships have now been warned to steer clear of the area and locals have been told to keep away from the site where the ship went down.

"It is forbidden to dive, fish or eat dead fish from the area," the centre said in a statement, adding that the waste notably contained chromium.

The Turkish branch of the environmental lobby group Greenpeace said it had repeatedly warned of the danger posed by the ship, the MV Ulla, since it arrived off the coast of Turkey in 2000 with a cargo of ash from coal-fired power stations in Spain.

The ship, registered in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, sailed to Turkey when Algeria, its original destination, refused to take delivery of its cargo. Negotiations with Spain to take back the cargo, carried out under the UN's Basel Convention on the Transport of Hazardous Waste, had been unsuccessful.

Environment Minister Osman Pepe speculated Tuesday that the ship might have been scuttled to prevent it returning to Spain.

Pepe told reporters that "in my soul and my conscience" he wondered whether "this incident could have been the result of sabotage".

"Why should a ship that had been waiting for four years suddenly sink just at the moment it was about to depart for Spain?" said the minister, quoted by Turkish agency Anatolia. He declined to elaborate.

Pepe said that negotiations between Turkey and the Spanish government were about to concluded when the accident occurred.

"A seizure notice was pending on the ship, which complicated its departure from the region. The order had just been lifted following an agreement with the Spanish government," the minister said, adding the vessel was to start its journey to Spain within a few days.

Later Pepe however emphasised in an interview with CNN-Turk television that at present he had "no indication making it possible to say whether the ship sank or had been sunk."

Suspicion that sabotage had been involved was ruled out by the deputy governor of Iskenderun province Cafer Odabas. He said it had been left to rust for four years and as a consequence "it had begun to take on water and sank."

"There is absolutely no question of sabotage. In any case the ship was under constant surveillance," Odabas said, quoted by Anatolia.

Pepe said an inquiry would be launched on Wednesday into the causes of the accident and he said the Spanish government would have to assume responsibility for all damage caused to the environment.