More than two months after hundreds of thousands of liters of toxic waste were dumped in Ivory Coast's main city, a massive cleanup operation is nearing completion.
Inside the cavernous cargo hold of the MN Toucan, moored dockside at Ivory Coast's main port in Abidjan, dozens of 24,000 liter tanks stand end to end, each marked with a skull and crossbones and a chemical hazard warning.
The chemicals are blamed for 10 deaths, more than 100,000 visits to doctors, and the fall of the Ivorian government last month.
Alwin Booij is managing director of Tredi International, the French waste disposal company contracted to handle the cleanup.
"We do these kinds of operations all around the world, but this is big and it's very high profile," he said.
So far, Booij says his teams have removed more than 6,000 tons of contaminated soil and toxic liquids from 18 sites around Abidjan, a city of around five million inhabitants. The 141 tanks aboard the MN Toucan constitute only the first of an expected four shipments.
But though cleanup operations are drawing to a close, the removal of the toxic waste from Abidjan's neighborhoods has done little to bring clarity or closure to the affair.
On August 19, the Probo Koala, a Panamanian-registered tanker ship chartered by Dutch-based commodities trader Trafigura, began offloading around 520,000 liters of liquid chemicals at the port of Abidjan. The disposal of the waste was contracted to Companie Tommy, an Ivorian firm that had obtained its operating permit just weeks earlier.
The chemicals were pumped into tanker trucks owned by Tommy, transported to different parts of the city at night, and dumped into drainage ditches, landfills, or simply on the ground.
Shortly afterward, city residents started showing up at understaffed hospitals by the hundreds, then by the thousands, complaining of persistent headaches, nosebleeds, and respiratory and digestive problems.
A perceived lack of action on the part of Ivory Coast's government led to street protests in Abidjan that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny's cabinet September 6.
Today, Ivorian authorities are carrying out no fewer than five inquiries into the affair. Two top Trafigura executives are among ten men currently being held in an Abidjan prison pending the results of a criminal inquiry. And police in the Netherlands are looking into an attempt by the Probo Koala to offload its cargo in Amsterdam in July.
The Ivorian government is also seeking compensation for cleanup costs, which are likely to run well into the millions.
"It's going to be quite a big amount, of course," noted Alwin Booij of the French waste disposal company. "We're talking about 6,000 tons of very hazardous waste to repack, transport and incinerate. There are big bucks involved."
A team of lawyers has been assembled to look into options for pursuing civil cases against those deemed responsible in the case. This week, a lawyer in the Netherlands, claiming to represent around 1,000 Ivorian victims, threatened to sue Trafigura if it did not pay a preliminary settlement of $12.5 million within two weeks.
Trafigura, for its part, disputes test results indicating the highly toxic nature of the waste and claims the ships contents could not have caused the deaths and widespread illness in Abidjan.
Though various investigations are under way, Ivorian officials have, so far, offered little information concerning the exact nature of the dangerous chemicals.
And so, many in Abidjan remain fearful of the long-term effects of their exposure.
Liberian refugee Towenda Kpuie lives 20 meters from Abidjan's Akouedo landfill, one of the places where the toxic waste was dumped. He says he immediately felt the effects of the dangerous chemicals. And he says that the Ivorian authorities have done little to allay his worries that his home may no longer be safe to live in.
"I want to move, because my life is important," he said. "[The toxic waste] is dangerous to my life. So, whether they are cleaning it up or not, I want to move."
The MN Toucan and its poisonous cargo left Abidjan late Friday night, bound for Le Havre, France. From there the tanks containing the chemicals will be transported to an incinerating facility outside Lyon for treatment and disposal.