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UN Seeks Help To Clean Up Deadly Ivorian Toxic Waste Dumps

The toxic-waste cleanup, Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Bogonko Bosire
Nairobi (AFP) Nov 23, 2006
The international community must help Ivory Coast clean up and rehabilitate sites contaminated this year by illegal toxic waste dumping that killed 10 people, the United Nations said Friday. Ahead of a global hazardous waste conference here next week, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said it was unfair for one of the world's most impoverished nations to pay the 30-million-dollar (20-million-euro) cost.

"It is the people of one of the world's poorest countries who have already paid dearly for this irresponsible act of hazardous waste dumping," UNEP chief Achim Steiner said.

"(They) are now being forced to actually pay the bill for removal and clean up operations," he said in a statement released at the agency's Nairobi headquarters.

In August, hundreds of tons of petroleum toxic waste from a ship chartered by a European company were dumped illicitly in Ivory Coast across more than a dozen open-air rubbish tips around the commercial capital of Abidjan.

The toxic sludge, dumped by the Ivorian firm Tommy, caused contamination blamed for the deaths of at least 10 people and left dozens hospitalized, sparking demonstrations in the west African nation.

The waste was later shipped to France for reprocessing but clean up efforts continue.

Amid a surge in such dumping, notably in the developing world, Steiner pressed for urgent enforcement of existing laws to prevent a repeat of the deadly Ivory Coast incident.

"We must assist (Ivory Coast) now, but it cannot end there," he said, calling for next week's five-day conference of signatories to the Basel Convention on the transport and disposal of hazardous waste to act quickly.

Existing laws have to be enforced and strengthened as do customs and waste management regulations in both developing and developed nations "to minimize the chances of such an incident occurring in the future," Steiner said.

The Basel Convention, which came into force in 1992 and has more than 160 state parties, aims to protect human health and the environment from hazardous and other waste material by regulating its cross-border shipment and disposal.

"One of the important lessons from the situation in Abidjan is that we have a serious problem with enforcement," said Sachiko Kuwabara-Yamamoto, the executive secretary of the treaty.

In addition, she and others urged Basel signatories to ratify the convention's Liability and Compensation Protocol that creates a fund to help affected countries get compensation from illegal toxic waste dumping.

Thus far, only seven of the 20 nations needed to ratify the protocol have done so and an emergency fund set up in the interim has only received 270,000 dollars (207,000 euros) in donations, according to Steiner.

"It would seem reasonable and sensible to considerably boost the resources of the emergency fund so that the international community can have a specific and well-funded response to hazardous waste dumping incidents that are occurring in Africa and other developing countries far too often," he said.

According to a 2005 report by the European Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), trade in illegal dumping of toxic wastes has risen steadily.

A joint enforcement operation carried out in that year in 17 European seaports examined 3,000 shipping documents and physically inspected 258 cargo holds discovered the widespread illegality of the trade.

Of 140 waste shipments found, 68, or 48 percent, turned out to be illegal, the report said.

earlier related report
I.Coast toxic waste scandal: expert fears longterm carcinogenic effects
Abidjan (AFP) Nov 23 - The toxic waste dumped across Ivory Coast's capital in August poses potential carcinogenic risks in the long run for people who were heavily exposed to the fumes, an expert researcher said Thursday.

Charles Memel Kacou, director of Ivorian environmental research institute IRSPE, expressed the fears as a government-appointed panel released findings of its probe into the waste dumping scandal.

"Analyses of the toxic waste show a very heavy concentration of chlorine elements. That's what worries us more, because that presents a carcinogenic risk," he said.

Ingestion of highly concentrated doses of chlorine can aid the destruction of cells and promote cancer in the long term, he added.

The government-appointed panel's findings blamed corruption, negligence and indifference among top officials in the administrative chain of government and local authorities for the unprecedented dumping of petroleum waste whose fumes poisoned thousands.

They also fingered a series of people from the ministry of transport, the directors of customs, ports and maritime affairs to the "surprisingly indifferent" Abidjan district administrators who let the toxic waste be dumped across the city.

Ten people died after falling sick from inhaling the toxic waste fumes, while thousands fell sick.

Kacou said the deaths were due to respiratory complications resulting from oxygen insufficiencies caused by strong hydrogen sulphide concentrations in the air.

Although 69 people are reported by authorities to have been hospitalised, Kacou said there were at least 300 hospitalisations of people poisoned by the waste.

"The contamination of the environment, the grounds and the Abidjan lagoon is real, but it is necessary that the contents of the chlorinated elements, the most dreaded, be confirmed by long-term studies," he said.

Toxic waste contaminated horticultural products grown near the dumpsites and fish bred in the lagoon, he added.

Meantime rebels in Ivory Coast, who control the north of the politically divided country, Thursday called for the punishment of all those found responsible for the dumping of the toxic waste.

The New Forces rebels made the call following the release this week of a probe report by a government-appointed task force into the waste scandal which cited "administrative dysfunctions, negligence and complicity" by responsible authorities.

Alain Lobognon, the New Forces spokesman, asked Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny to "sanction" persons or groups of people clearly established to have been responsible.

Hundreds of tons of petroleum toxic waste from a ship chartered by European company Trafigura were dumped illicitly across more than a dozen open-air rubbish tips around Abidjan in mid-August.

The toxic sludge was dumped by Ivorian firm Tommy whose boss was arrested after the poisoning scandal broke.

The report singled out Tommy as the main player in the worst environmental scandal to hit Ivory Coast.

earlier related report
earlier related report
Corruption, apathy led to ICoast toxic waste scandal: report
Abidjan (AFP) Nov 24 - An official report into the dumping of hundreds of tonnes of toxic refuse in Ivory Coast that caused the death of at least 10 people points an accusatory finger at corrupt and indifferent officials, and the local company contracted to handle the waste.

The government-appointed commission of inquiry charged top officials with negligence, and apportions responsibility all along the administrative chain of command down to the level of local authorities, according to a report released this week.

It said the Abidjan port management "displayed notorious complicity" with the polluters, and singled out Ivorian company Tommy as the main architect of the deadly scandal.

The report also criticized the Dutch company, Trafigura, that chartered the ship on which the toxic material was transported.

While acknowledging that Trafigura informed local authorities of the toxicity of the waste before unloading, investigators said the company failed to respect the Basel Convention on the transportation of dangerous waste and "ignored Ivory Coast's incapacity" to treat such waste.

The panel underlined that the country's political crisis -- which started after an armed revolt in 2002 -- "is characterized in particular by the intensification of corruption and impunity" and a weakened system of rule of law.

Tommy had neither the proper approvals nor the competence to deal with toxic waste, and the ministry of transport disregarded established procedure in licensing Tommy in July 2006, concluded the report.

The preliminary findings also outlined the chain of events leading to the health disaster.

On the morning of Saturday August 19, the Probo Koala -- a ship chartered by an international company Trafigura -- docked at the port of Abidjan with 528 tons of oil waste on board.

It was first inspected by health services and customs police who said they did not detect "anything abnormal".

When customs officers arrived to inspect the ship, tankers hired by Tommy were already connected to the ship's drainage pipes. Responding to queries by one customs officer on the strong odour emitted by the waste, the director of Tommy said that "analysis by specialists showed that the product did not present any danger."

The waste was discharged starting Saturday afternoon in a dozen local tankers, hired for 125,000 CFA francs (190 euros) each by Tommy per single load discharged at the Akouedo open air rubbish tip.

The first truck arrived at Akouedo around 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) to illegally pump its cargo.

An hour later the truck left and workers there decided to close the dumpsite, two hours ahead of normal closing time.

One of the workers told the commission the early closure was due to safety concerns, while another said it was only "a pretext to flee" from the choking fumes.

Tommy had paid 500,000 CFA francs (762 euros) to Pisa-Impex, which jointly manages rubbish with the Abidjan administration.

Part of the money was paid to the local government workers, noted the report. Although the dumpsite had been officially closed, three other trucks drove in to unload their toxic cargo overnight Saturday.

A few hours later, residents were violently woken up at dawn on Sunday, August 20, by the irritating fumes.

The governor of Abdijan district, Pierre Amondji, only convened his first meeting on the crisis three weeks later on September 13, though the first death linked to the poisoning occurred on September 4.

The Abdidjan Port director Marcel Gossio refused to act when approached by the environmental department, which wanted to block the ship from leaving on Tuesday four days after the dumping.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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