Trafigura’s West African dumping

Here’s an interesting story, well told, about an industrial process that takes refinery waste from the United States (derived from high-sulfur Mexican crude oil), cycles it through Europe, then dumps the result in West Africa.

The company running this racket (or “innovative commodity exchange”, as they call it) is Trafigura.

Learn more here:

Here’s a quick summary:

  • An arbitrage opportunity exists for energy traders based on differing regulatory frameworks in rich countries and poor ones.
  • A chemical process can turn a waste product in one jurisdiction into two outputs, gasoline usable in a lenient jurisdiction (West Africa), and the waste extracted from the original product.
  • If you buy one ship of high quality gas, you can dissolve the waste stream from several other tankers of coke gasoline into it, meaning that you can dispose of the waste stream by getting your customers to burn it for you in their cars.
  • A clever and immoral company can take advantage to squeeze profits where others just saw costs. The profits come from the externalities of burning high-sulfur gasoline (decreased longevity due to sulfur-rich smog)
  • None of this is precisely against the law. Tanfigura and it’s contractors made minor infractions here and there, playing fast and loose with the rules. But what they are doing is fundamentally not illegal — though it should be.
  • Trafigura was working towards, or achieved, the ability to reprocess this stuff at sea, likely to further reduce the power of regulators over their work.

How much other stuff like this is going on? Who are the people that organize and operate this kind of thing? How do they sleep at night?

Is This the Big One?

We know that a pandemic is coming. We don’t know when and how. Something’s coming out of Mexico (though the index case might have been someplace else, too soon to tell). Is this the Big One, the pandemic that we are overdue for?

I am gathering information here to make sure I understand it, and how to protect myself and my family.

Avian influenza is influenza type A, subtype H5N1. The porcine influenza found in Mexico is type A, subtype H1N1. Influenza type B is much less dangerous, but is unfortunately not what we are dealing with here. The 1918 pandemic was type A, subtype H1N1 — the same that is circulating in Mexico today. Matching subtypes does not mean that there’s matching virulence, but it’s a clear danger sign.

There are two medecines of interest.

Zanamivir, trade name Relenza (no generics available). A neuraminidase inhibitor. Must be administered by inhaler. Some evidence it is more effective than tamiflu, but little work has been done, for some reason Tamiflu gets all the press.

Oseltamivir, trade name Tamiflu. An orally active neuraminidase inhibitor. It is maintained in huge stockpiles by governments as a hedge against avian flu. Cases are already being treated with it, there is no public info I saw on its effectivness. A friend told me according to info he saw (don’t know if it was public or not) the virus responds to Tamiflu.

Both drugs are effective against Type A and Type B.

Word on the street from Mexico is panicy and points to a long development of the situation and underestimation in public pronouncements. This is expected and normal. The quesiton is what to do about it? Later, there will be finger pointing (or none at all — China and WHO have avoided scrutinty of their massive underreporting of the true impact of SARS, likely 10x or more the official counts). Right now, people have to decide what to do with the early, partial, bad information. One of the courses of action is “nothing out of the ordinary”, which is by default what we are all doing. The fact that Mexico is in full emergency, the USA has just declared an emergency, and the WHO has declared this an event of international concern means it’s probably time to stop the ordinary.

My life is already blessedly empty of large gatherings of people (I’m a geek, we don’t do people). Each day I choose whether to go to the office or not, and maybe now I’ll start to prefer home, until I know more. Perhaps I’ll walk and use taxis instead of the bus, seems like a simple way to reduce exposure to sick people.

Tamiflu is only available in the UK with doctor’s orders, it seems. There are online pharmacies that ask you a bunch of questions, then send the questions to a doctor, who will supposedly “review” the answers, then release the drugs to you for sale. What a sleazy loophole, online pharmacies. I wonder who those doctors are, and how they sleep at night.

Finally, to put it in perspective a bit. The pandemic of 1918 had peak fatalities of less than 25% of each affected community. I can live with odds of 1 in 4, though it’s a bit grim. With modern medicine, the case fatality rate for this outbreak will undoubtedly be much lower, and the attack rate of the virus is likely to be either in the same range as 1918, or lower (why? there’s an upper bound to how virulent a virus can be; humans are not machines, we have huge differences in our biology, and getting sick requires all the biology works just right).

The real problem with pandemic is economic and travel disruption. I think it is likely that there will be some. It’s likely that travel restrictions will come into effect. Hopefully they will not prevent us from receiving our guests for our wedding. But if it happens, it happens. Sad, but the party will go on, at least inside of Switzerland.

Interesting links:

Here’s a typical example of how governments cover up and downplay outbreaks (or just confuse themselves and end up lying on accident). On the front page of, the US pandemic stage is listed as 0. When you click on it, you find the definitions (very good information design, I might add). The definitions seem to indicate that the US should either be in phase 0, 1, or 4. But apparently US phase 4 requires WHO to get to phase 6. What’s strange is that the US phases do not take into consideration the possibility that the US could be part of the initial wave of countries as it seems to be. So pretty much life as usual… you prepare and then the plans all go out the window because nature does whatever she wants anyway. 🙂

Update: It was fun to educate myself, but now I’m going back to my regularly scheduled blissful ignorace. Looks to me like smart people are managing a large but not dangerous outbreak correctly, and there’s nothing for me to do but be happy that they are doing their job.


No, not 300, that’s a movie. 350. Parts per million CO2 concentration.

Pass the word. Oh, right, it’s just a number, not words…

PS: This posting does not constitute an admission that CO2 causes global warming. But I happen to agree with everything that anti-carbon campaigners believe in, even if I think that global warming is a hoax. And this is a nifty animation with cool music, so I’m posting it anyway.

Thoughts of a man far away

Hong Kong has turned out to be the epicenter of a serious outbreak of SARS.

There is an incredibly moving article in BBC about the silent killer in the midst of the healtch care workers in Hong Kong. I found the e-mail address of the doctor and sent him a note. It is included below.

To: [email protected]
Subject: God bless you

I read your interview in BBC and it really touched me. Tonite I
had been feeling sorry for myself and my country (I'm an
American) because we've gotten ourselves into such a mess in the
mideast. Your interview reminded me that the real fight is
against nature itself.

Good luck to you, take care of yourself. May all your colleagues
recover. You have my thoughts even in this trying time, when
these obscene distractions try to pull my attention from your
very human story.

Jeff Allen
Redwood City, CA, USA

If you feel like it, please send him a note too.

Living in an sci-fi novel

In Estonia, they have a public program to let people get their genes sequenced.

I just can’t get my head wrapped around what this kind of thing will do to society. I’m not against it, I just feel a little like I felt when I saw the first web browser. I knew that things were going to get really complicated, but I didn’t really feel like I knew where things were heading for a few years there.

Also, have you noticed that it’s not the current leaders in technology that are leading in sociological innovation related to biological stuff? PCR was invented in the US, and some of the fastest sequencing machines ever made came from Silicon Valley.

This came to me via an article in Salon that points out that there’s a Silicon Valley company involved now that the pilot phase is over.

As an aside, isn’t it cool that Windows 2000 is so completely internationalized that you can choose from Estonian, English, or Russian, and see all the characters drawn right?