Despite an international ban on toxic waste dumping, environmentalists say unscrupulous companies find ways to continue exporting their deadly cargo. Vast quantities of waste are exported from rich to poor countries, in the name of recycling. Much of that trade is illegal. Recent legal developments highlight how Africa's ports are often targeted as a cheap dumping ground in this illegal toxic trade. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West Africa Bureau on the challenges of tracking hazardous waste.
Hundreds of people have joined a British lawsuit against a Dutch-based oil trader, Trafigura, saying it illegally dumped tons of waste in the Ivory Coast, last August.
More than 200 Ivorians are suing the company for what they say is the aftermath of the deadly dumping.
Ivorian health authorities have reported at least 10 people died and thousands remain sick from the poisonous sludge dumped into more than 15 open-air sites in Abidjan.
The company has denied responsibility. In a written statement, Trafigura, which has an office in London where the case is being pursued, says the ship it chartered carried mostly commercial gasoline from Estonia en route to Nigeria. The statement says the ship legally offloaded some waste through a local Ivorian company.
The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Martin Day, reacts strongly to this defense.
"Total utter rubbish," he said. "They accepted themselves that the slops were chemical slops. It is clear that the Ivory Coast had no facilities whatsoever to treat this waste. Trafigura knew what they were shipping to the Ivory Coast. They were doing it, because they did not want to pay the money to have it treated it in the developed world."
The United Nations environment program estimates the cleanup in the Ivory Coast will cost at least $30 million.
Helen Perivier, with the Dutch-based environmental non-profit Greenpeace, says the world woke up to the waste trade problem and its costly cleanup in the late 1980s. It responded with international treaties, called the Basel and Bamako conventions, to ban illegal hazardous waste dumping.
She says reports of illegal dumping were on the decline until the Ivory Coast case.
"The incident in Ivory Coast took many people by surprise," she said. "It exposed the fact that there are still cause for a concern and attention to the export of hazardous waste going from richer to poorer countries. The Trafigura case raises a lot of questions about whether hazardous waste shipments are just going underground, whether exporters are being more clever."
Nick Nuttall, a spokesman with the United Nations Environment Program, says multiple ship changes and dockings made in the international waste trade make it difficult to police, especially in the world's poorest regions.
"This kind of activity is probably more widespread in Africa and other developing parts of the world than commonly supposed," he noted. "There are indications that when you have political vacuums or when you have incomplete customs administration for want of funding, that unscrupulous administrators use those loopholes to get rid of hazardous waste from other parts of the world."
Nuttall says the problem is not just the countries that export their waste, but also the countries that accept it.
"You can have as many laws as you want, but if you do not have the capacity to enforce them in the countries concerned, then they are simply paper tigers," he added.
Cases of hazardous waste dumping have tended to involve radioactive waste and chemical sludge, but Greenpeace environmentalist Perivier says the nature of dumping is changing.
"Electronic waste is one of the largest growing forms of waste streams," she added. "We have seen that some estimates that 75 percent of the electronics sent to Nigeria was junk and ended up being land filled or burned in open air fires."
Perivier says that much of electronic waste, also known as e-waste, contains heavy metals and plastics that are poisonous when burned.
The United Nations estimates close to half a million unwanted computers arrive in Nigeria, each month. Much of this comes from the United States, which has not ratified the toxic waste ban treaty.