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Ten Years Later, Toxic Waste Victims Still Demanding Justice

It has been 10 years since a ship named the Probo Koala unloaded toxic waste into Abidjan’s ports, sickening hundreds of thousands and killing at least 15. A decade after the scandal, Ivorian authorities say they have cleaned the dumping sites and taken measures to make sure this does not happen again. But the victims are still demanding justice and compensation.

Nicole Blégno walks with neighbors among the hilly, open-air landfill behind her village of Akouédo, a dozen kilometers from Abidjan.

She recalls the night 10 years ago when she woke up to a smell of rotten garlic.

"It is here that they offloaded the toxic waste," says Blégno, pointing her finger at a nearby stream. People cultivate the land nearby.

On the night of August 19, 2006, trucks illegally discharged toxic waste from a ship named the Probo Koala in several open-air locations around Abidjan.

Hundreds of thousands of people living near the sites soon got sick and at least 15 died.

Symptoms persist

Blégno says residents are still feeling the symptoms.

“We all have problems with our eyes, with our skin, strange stomachaches,” she said.

Local residents say there was never any medical follow-up and have been asking to have their medical expenses covered. Most do not have money to seek treatment.

The exact composition of the toxic waste from the Probo Koala remains unknown. Trafigura, the Dutch oil trading firm that chartered the vessel, has never disclosed it, despite NGOs such as Amnesty International repeatedly asking them to do so.

Residents also say they can still smell the peculiar odor when it rains, despite the Ivorian government announcing last year that all locations had been decontaminated.

Eager to prove their point, Ivorian authorities have recently invited a UN team to come and check. The results of their audit are expected by the end of the year.

The director of the CIAPOL anti-pollution center, Martin N. Dibi, says new measures have been implemented during the past decade.

Dibi says that each time a ship arrives at the port and indicates it is transporting liquids they want to offload, authorities send a team over to run an analysis.

Meanwhile, victims still feel that justice has not been done.

Quest for justice

In 2007, Trafigura agreed to pay a multi-million-dollar settlement to the Ivorian government in exchange for being exempted from prosecution.

As he flips through the piles of victim’s folders in his office, the president of a collective of victims' associations, Denis Yao Pipira, says bringing Trafigura to justice is key is deterring similar behaviors in the future.

Pipira says that if there is no exemplary sanction, it will pave the way for new dumping grounds similar to the ones they have experienced in 2006. "Companies only focused on saving money will come to Africa to get rid of their waste with total impunity," he adds.

Ten years later, many victims are still waiting for compensation. Some recently protested outside the American embassy in Abidjan, asking for the international community to step in.