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Ivory Coast's toxic tragedy a lesson for others

These Ivory Coast children live near one of the public dumps where toxic waste from a ship was illegally deposited.Schalk Van Zuydam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not long after hundreds of tons of toxic waste were jettisoned around Ivory Coast’s main city under cover of darkness, Jean-Jacques Kakou and thousands of others awoke to an overpowering stench that burned the eyes and made it hard to breathe.

Three weeks later, Kakou was dead — one of at least 10 deaths authorities suspect were linked to dumping that has thrown light on a growing global trade in hazardous waste. Poison is still being shipped out of developed nations to the Third World despite international legislation.

“This is a wake-up call,” Greenpeace’s Helen Perivier said of the one of the worst waste scandals of the last decade — one that saw toxic black sludge dumped at 17 sites in Abidjan on Aug. 19. Two months later, the cleanup is still under way.

Outrage over similar incidents in the 1980s, including the dumping by Italian businessmen of 8,000 drums of chemical waste on a Nigerian beach in 1987, prompted creation of international legislation.

The so-called Basel Convention was amended in 1995 to include a ban on toxic waste shipments from industrialized nations, and experts say it has helped stem the flow of many kinds of chemical or industrial wastes to Africa and Asia.

E-waste a newer concern
But other detritus from the developed world known as electronic waste — discarded computers and televisions sets — is growing and may be an even greater concern, environmental experts say. According to the U.N., about 20 million to 50 million tons of “e-waste” is generated worldwide annually. Such waste contains toxins like lead and mercury or other chemicals that can poison waterways if buried or pour toxins into the air if burned.

“Hazardous electronic waste is flowing to Africa on container ships every day. It’s not as dramatic as was what happened in Ivory Coast, but over the long run it will have more of an environmental impact,” Jim Puckett, founder of the Seattle-based environmental watchdog, Basel Action Network, told The Associated Press by telephone from London.

“More of it is being produced and it is still flowing down the path of least resistance — from the rich countries to the poor,” he said.

Some African states, including Ivory Coast, have failed to ratify the main amendment to the Basel Convention. Key nations like the United States — which produces the most hazardous waste per capita of any country in the world — have rejected it altogether.

Ivory Coast’s own tragedy began July 2, when a Korean-built, Greek-managed, Panamanian-flagged tanker chartered by the multibillion dollar Dutch commodities trading company Trafigura Beheer BV docked in Amsterdam to discharge its load, according to Greenpeace. The ship, the Probo Koala, had been acting as a storage vessel for unrefined gasoline and Trafigura said it was trying to get rid of “washings” left behind after a routine cleaning with caustic soda.

Amsterdam port officials agreed to dispose of the waste for $15,000, but after realizing it was a bigger load and tougher to cope with than expected, upped the price. Trafigura refused to pay, and left.

The ship traveled on to Estonia, and then Africa — where it found a local company in Ivory Coast called Tommy that agreed to dispose of the waste for roughly the original price.

But Tommy lacked facilities to get rid of the waste. No company in Ivory Coast has such facilities, said Safiatou Ba N’daw, who heads a special Ivorian government committee set up to deal with the crisis.

Trucks took waste to dumps
Ivorian officials and witnesses say more than a dozen trucks contracted by Tommy simply poured 528 tons of the waste at 17 public sites around Abidjan after midnight Aug. 19. The lagoon-side city’s main garbage dump. A roadside field beside a prison. A sewage canal.

A man wearing a protective suit walks past containers filled with toxic waste, at a dumping site on the outskirts of the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006. Hundreds of tons of toxic waste was jettisoned around Ivory Coast's main city under cover of darkness two months ago. "This is a wake-up call," Greenpeace's Helen Perivier said of one of the worst waste scandals of the last decade _ one that saw toxic black sludge dumped haphazardly at 17 different sites in Abidjan on Aug. 19. "The world has become too complacent." Schalk Van Zuydam / AP

People woke to an intense stench — a mixture of rotten eggs and burnt garlic and onions. By morning, eyes were stinging, noses bleeding, stomachs, chests and ears were aching.

Tests later showed the sludge contained mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, a potent poison that, particularly in confined spaces, can cause blackouts, respiratory failure and death.

Kakou, the 27-year-old construction worker who died three weeks later, fell ill immediately, according to his uncle David Ncho.

Kakou suffered asthma but otherwise had been in good health. On the last day of his life, he planned to go to one of the emergency clinics set up to deal with the crisis, and got up early to avoid the horrendously long lines. His family found him dead in the shower.

“Why did they dump this here? Why did they do it?” Ncho asked. “They must have known it was deadly. Why bring it to Africa?”

Inquiries, arrests
Authorities in the Netherlands, Estonia and Ivory Coast have launched investigations. Trafigura officials maintain they broke no laws.

Ivory Coast authorities have jailed seven people, including four Ivorian officials, the Nigerian head of Tommy and two French executives of Trafigura. All have been charged with breaking local toxic waste disposal laws, said Ali Yeo, a senior Justice Ministry official.

Many Ivorian residents have leveled anger at their government for allowing in the shipment. Mobs of youths burned the house of a port official and dragged the deposed transport minister from his car and beat him.

More than 100,000 Abidjan residents sought treatment, 69 were hospitalized and 10 died, though the exact reasons are still under investigation, said Health Ministry spokesman Simeon N’Da.

Two months later, cleanup workers from Tredi International, a French company, wear respiratory masks and white protective clothing while working alongside bulldozers that scoop up tainted sludge and pour it into large steel containers. The containers are sealed and sprayed with a chemical cleaning solution.

Tredi spokesman Henri Pettigand said he hoped the cleanup operation would finish this week. The waste will eventually be shipped back to Europe, but no specific destination has been agreed.

Near the cleanup effort, young scavengers search for aluminum, rubber and dolls heads, ignoring skull-and-crossbones signs.