Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ivory Coast Still Suffering from Toxic Spill

More than a year after 500 tons of toxic waste from Europe were dumped illegally around the Ivory Coast's economic hub, Abidjan, roughly a fourth of the area poisoned by the spill has not yet been cleaned up. Many residents of the commercial capital remain ill and uncompensated for their ailments. Lisa Bryant has more on what experts say is the worst toxic waste spill in years.

Late at night in August 2006, several hundred tons of toxic waste were dumped around Abidjan, including this suburb of Akoueko extension, which bore the brunt of the dumping. The waste had been shipped by the Dutch company Trafigura, from the Netherlands. Trafigura had contracted out its disposal to an Ivorian firm, which had no means to properly dispose of the poisonous material.

Residents woke up with nausea and headaches. They formed a neighborhood activist association, one of several created around the city, to protest the dumping and demand compensation. Altogether, the spill killed at least 15 people and sickened another 100,000.

Some Ivorian authorities were fired for the dumping scandal and Trafigura ultimately paid a $200 million compensation agreement to the Ivorian government. But today, Akouedo residents complain they still feel sick, and that the toxic waste has not been properly cleaned up.

Olivier Dago Zate, is head of the Akouedo activist group.

Zate says Akouedo citizens are worried, because they do not know the mid- and long-term consequences of the toxic waste that was dumped in their town. They do not know what kind of waste it was, and that is serious, he says.

Zate and several other residents take me on a tour of the nearby dumping sites. One is surrounded by barbed wire. A sickly looking green stream flows behind it. The other sits on open ground, amid tall rushes. The area is also where Abidjan dumps its municipal waste.

Zate claims nothing has been done to clean up the spill. All it takes, he says, is a hot sun for the air to smell like old garlic or rotten eggs.

The French company Tredi, charged with shipping the waste back to France for treatment and disposal, disputes the association's claims. It says it has cleaned up Akouedo extension. Still, Tredi another 3,500 tons of poisonous soil remain untreated around Abidjan.

The French company says that is because Tit has not yet received new orders from the Ivorian government to clean up the rest. Ivorian authorities say they want Trafigura to pay more cleanup money, but Trafigura insists it has fulfilled its agreement.

Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization fighting against toxic waste shipment, criticizes Trafigura's response.

"The response to this incident has really been quite shameful," he noted. "There's been a settlement paid, the country of Cote d'Ivoire was quite desperate to get any money at that point in time. They took the settlement from Trafigura company of about $200 million, but that's not enough to pay the costs, liabilities and remediation that has to take place."

Puckett is also critical of the Ivorian government and other African countries for not signing the Basel Convention banning the shipment of hazardous waste, even though these countries are the least prepared to handle its effects.

The costs of last year's dumping have been damaging in other ways.

A few miles around from the Akouedo dumping grounds sits the Kafango family's small house. Niece Marina Kafango, 13, is here visiting her aunt. She is a pretty girl, but she walks around with crutches.

Marina's mother, Josephine, explains her daughter fell violently ill with a blood ailment after last year's toxic waste spills. She shows me a stack of letters and medical examination results. Like many Ivorians affected by the toxic waste spill, Josephine says the family has not been compensated for the medical treatment.

But Gervaise Coulibaly, spokesman for Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, says there is simply not enough money to go around.

Coulibaly sympathizes with the victims but says there will never be enough money to treat everyone. He says the government plans instead to use most of Trafigura's money to create health centers and pollution prevention measures to ensure similar catastrophes will not happen again.

But Puckett, of Basel Action Network, is not so sure. He says Africa and other developing countries are faced with new hazards, notably old ships and computers dumped on their shores from richer nations. He says electronic waste is flooding from north to south and very little is being done to stop it.