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Ivory Coast Pollution Toll Surges Upwards, Seven Arrested

A man wears a mask to protect himself from toxic waste, dumped on the Ivory Coast three weeks ago. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Staff Writers
Abidjan (AFP) Sep 11, 2006
The number of people poisoned by the dumping of highly toxic sludge in Ivory Coast surged to nearly 9,000 on Monday with six dead, as seven people were arrested over the scandal. Health authorities reported Monday a sixth death along with a steep rise in the number of people who have sought medical attention since the waste was dumped at open-air garbage sites across the commercial capital Abidjan.

"We have as of today a total of 8,887 people that have come for consultations at health centres," Jean Denoman, deputy director of health said on state television.

State judicial authorities announced the arrest of seven people, including the heads of three companies -- Puma Energie, Waibs and Tommy -- operating at the Port of Abidjan.

Prosecutor Raymond Tchimou said the suspects could face charges of endangering public health that carried prison terms of between 15 and 20 years.

The toxic material was dumped three weeks ago by a Panamanian-registered ship at about 10 sites in Abidjan, a city of four million people.

Three UN experts were being dispatched to join six French waste disposal specialists who arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to help with an emergency plan to neutralise toxic fumes emanating from the waste.

Switzerland is also planning to send an expert to help deal with the crisis, which triggered angry protests and the mass resignation of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny's cabinet last week.

Banny, who has been asked to form a new government, has accused his administration of "negligence" and promised to punish those responsible.

President Laurent Ggabgo's office announced Monday plans to build a bunker to hold the toxic waste in a bid to "contribute to the resolution" of the crisis.

It also announced that 36 health centres, four of them staffed by the military, were on hand to attend to victims of the poisoning, along with two mobile units.

Meanwhile, at least 120 convicts had to be evacuated from Abidjan's Maca prison to protect them from fumes from waste dumped near the facility following the death of an inmate, a source at the correctional centre told AFP.

A total of 538 tonnes of liquid waste was unloaded from the ship, according to port authorities. Bouabre put the total at 581 tonnes.

Environmental pressure group Greenpeace said the dumped sludge was made up of 400 tonnes of oil refining waste, rich in organic matter and poisonous elements. These include hydrogen sulphide and organochloride, which cause nausea, rashes, fainting, diarrhoea and headaches.

The "Probo Koala", registered in Panama, was chartered by a Netherlands-based company, which said an Ivorian firm had been entrusted with handling the unloaded waste.

The Greek company that owns the vessel, Prime Marine Management, confirmed the waste had been discharged but said the action was lawful.

The exact origin of the toxic material has not yet been established.

Under the Basel Convention, an international treaty on hazardous waste minimisation, the European Union prohibits the export of toxic substances to developing countries.

On Monday Paul Bouhoun Bouabre, a member of the ministerial committee appointed to deal with the crisis, said Ivory Coast had "no intention of becoming the world's garbage dump" and would invoke every international convention available to obtain justice in the affair.

"Everything that these texts allow us to do, we will do it," Bouabre told AFP. "All those responsible on all levels will suffer the consequences of their actions at both the national and the international level," he said.

The scandal has added to the woes of this west African state, where a UN-brokered peace process is struggling to end four years of political crisis touched off by a failed coup against Ggabgo in 2002 that effectively split the country in two.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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