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Residents Riot As Ivory Coast Promises Start To Toxic Waste Clean-Up

Ivory Coast residents protest against the dumping of toxic waste in their country. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by David Youant and Emmanuel Duparcq
Abidjan (AFP) Sep 15, 2006
Hundreds of angry residents in Abidjan rioted Friday over Ivory Coast's toxic waste dumping scandal that has claimed seven lives, left thousands unwell and brought down the government. Despite announcements by Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny that a clean-up would start on Sunday to remove the illegally dumped toxic waste, up to 300 residents from the Akouedo and Riviera districts protested violently in this volatile city.

Banny said French waste management giant Tredi had been hired to clean up the sludge and he vowed to punish those responsible for the pollution that has led to some 26,000 medical consultations.

President Laurent Gbagbo said those who dumped the waste would "pay for their crime" but fury still raged in Abidjan.

Transport Minister Innocent Anaky Kobeman was dragged out of his car by residents who forced him to inhale toxic fumes from the waste dumped in the district nearly a month ago, witnesses said.

The car was then set on fire and the minister had to be airlifted from the district by a military helicopter, they added.

Abidjan's residents said they took to the streets to express their discontent after smelling a new strong odour coming from the dumps in Ivory Coast's economic capital.

They barricaded roads and blocked traffic on one of the city's main roads using burning tyres and old refrigerators.

The upmarket home of Marcel Gossio, the head of the Abidjan ports authority, was also set alight as he was blamed along with other officials for allowing the highly toxic industrial residue into the country.

Calm returned to the city late Friday as residents pulled down the barricades and dispersed.

A spokesman for Seche, which owns the waste management company Tredi, said he expected all of Abidjan's polluted sites to be declared safe within a fortnight.

"Our first objective is to secure the sites and confine the waste so that it no longer poses a risk for public health or the environment," Henri Petitgand told AFP in Paris.

But he added that the entire cleanup operation would last several weeks.

Seven people, including the heads of the local waste disposal firm Tommy and two other Ivorian companies, have been arrested in the growing scandal after over 500 tonnes of chemicals were dumped in 14 open-air rubbish dumps around the city and in the sea in August.

Tommy is blamed for dumping the sludge -- which has caused nausea, rashes, fainting, diarrhoea and headaches -- onto ordinary rubbish tips.

Dutch-based multinational trading company Trafigura, which operates the Probo Koala cargo ship that unloaded the industrial waste, insisted it acted lawfully in handing the residue over to Tommy for disposal.

Japan has pledged 1.5 million euros (1.9 million dollars) to partly fund the clean-up exercise, while France is to send a consignment of medicine to the country next week.

The substance at the heart of the crisis is a mixture of oil residue and caustic soda used to rinse the residue out a Greek-owned cargo ship.

Seche, which has grown from a small family firm into an international player, has in the past carried out contracts for the World Bank and the United Nations to clean up sites in places such as Mauritania, Mali, Moldova, Hungary and even Romania.

earlier related report
Ivory Coast Toxic Cleanup To Take Weeks
Paris (AFP) Sep 15 - The French firm tasked with cleaning up illegally dumped toxic waste that has left seven people dead and thousands unwell in Ivory Coast said on Friday the job would take several weeks to complete.

A spokesman for Seche, whose subsidiary Tredi will carry out the cleanup in Abidjan, said he hoped that all of the polluted sites in Ivory Coast's commercial capital would be declared safe within a fortnight.

But he added that the entire cleanup operation would take several weeks.

"We first need to get the situation under control," Seche spokesman Henri Petitgand told AFP.

"Our first objective is to secure the sites and confine the waste so that it no longer poses a risk for public health or the environment," he continued.

It is this initial phase of operations that should take around two weeks, Petitgand explained.

After that, Seche experts will excavate the polluted sites then pump out all traces of what experts call "lixiviat", a slurry of any toxic substances found in the waste tips, into secure containers.

The toxic sludge will then be shipped to Europe where it will be disposed of safely.

"Our first concern is to confine the substances and to remove the polluted waste from the affected areas. After that we will need a bit more time to decide just how it will be treated, depending on its chemical composition," Petitgand said.

A team of around 15 pollution experts is already heading to Ivory Coast to begin preparations for the cleanup, which is scheduled to start on Sunday.

They will be followed by other colleagues as well as specialised equipment that will be flown to Abidjan in a transport aircraft.

"An Antonov is leaving for Abidjan with all the equipment needed for conditioning the waste and making it safe," Petitgand explained.

Less specialised machinery needed for the cleanup, including cranes, bulldozers and diggers, will be hired in Ivory Coast, the spokesman added.

Seche said it had not ruled out the possibility of hiring local workers to help with the operation, but stressed it would only work with properly trained personnel.

"We will only hire local staff if they are specialised," said Petitgand, adding that the entire operation would in any case be carried out under the supervision of qualified chemical engineers and United Nations experts.

Seche has co-ordinated a number of major toxic cleanups in the past, including work for the World Bank and the United Nations.

Between 2004 and 2005, for example, it helped to dispose of around 2,000 tonnes of out-of-date, perished pesticides in Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde.

Petitgand did not say how much the operation would cost.

Seven people have died in Abidjan and 26,000 have sought medical treatment as a result of inhaling fumes from the illegally dumped toxic waste.

The waste was pumped out of the hold of a Greek ship, the Probo Koala, and dumped in municipal rubbish tips in Abidjan, allegedly by a local company called Tommy, on the night of August 19.

earlier related report
Politics In Ivory Coast Paralysed As Toxic Waste Clean Up Begins
Abidjan (AFP) Sep 17 - Ivory Coast's politics remained paralysed Sunday despite a government shake up provoked by a toxic waste scandal, with UN-brokered peace talks under threat after President Laurent Gbago said he would not attend.

Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny on Sunday officially launched operations to clean up more than 500 tonnes of toxic waste that were dumped in August on open-air rubbish tips in Abidjan, killing seven people, causing thousands to fall ill and provoking widespread riots.

Work to clean up the waste and send it back to Europe to be treated is due to last several weeks, according to French waste treatment company Tredi, part of the Seche group, which is overseeing the operation.

"What's important today is that we manage to rid the population of this toxic waste," Banny said to journalists as operations began.

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Ivory Coast said following a meeting between UN specialists and Tredi representatives that the clean up would last two months.

The substance at the heart of the crisis is a mixture of oil residue and caustic soda used to rinse out the tanks of a Greek-owned cargo ship, causing nausea, rashes, fainting, diarrhoea and headaches.

Dutch-based multinational trading company Trafigura said it had hired Ivorian firm Tommy to properly dispose of the sludge.

But Tommy simply dumped an unknown proportion of the 500 tonnes at 11 public sites across the city on August 19 and 20, making thousands of residents ill and killing seven, including four children.

Eight people, including the heads of Tommy and two other Ivorian companies, had been arrested by Saturday.

The scandal prompted the whole government to resign on September 6 but all the ministers bar two -- transport and environment -- were returned to office on Saturday, dashing hopes that a new line-up could shake up the stalled peace process.

Banny's second cabinet since being appointed in 2005 to lead the country to elections is a delicate balance between Gbagbo supporters, opposition figures and rebels who have controlled the north of the country since an attempted coup against Gbagbo in 2002.

Presidential and parliamentary elections, aimed at consolidating Ivory Coast's fragile peace process, had been due to take place by October 29 but the United Nations said the deadline could not be maintained due to inadequate preparations.

Negotiations to overcome disagreements between the political rivals and end sporadic fighting have so far failed and the country remains divided between the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north.

Representatives of the different sides are due to meet in New York on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly for key talks aimed at breaking the deadlock.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the leaders of the African Union and the heads of state of several regional nations are also due to attend.

But even those negotiations are under threat after Gbagbo on Thursday said he would not attend nor send a delegation, saying the four-year-old peace process in his country had "failed".

Annan deplored the decision and urged him to reconsider.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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