World Governments Asked to Pay for Ivory Coast Cleanup

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 24, 2006 (ENS) - International financial assistance should be mobilized to pay for the cleanup and rehabilitation of contaminated sites in the West African country of Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, United Nations officials said today, as governments gather for a hazardous waste conference.

The call for financial help is based on fresh information that indicates the final costs of a toxic dumping incident in August could hit US$30 million.

The 500 metric tons of toxic waste dumped in the Ivorian city of Abidjan claimed 10 lives and injured some 9,000 people. More than 40,000 people sought medical help.


Abidjan has a population of four million residents. (Photo courtesy Rastapoche)
Delegates from across the world are arriving at the Nairobi headquarters of the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, for next week's Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

The central theme of the meeting is the issue of electronic waste, or e-waste, as a result of the enormous growth in the international traffic of obsolete products like computers and mobile phones.

But in addition the issue of illegal shipments of hazardous materials to vulnerable countries will be high on the agenda as a result of the Ivory Coast waste dumping.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said he has been informed by the Ivorian authorities that, following initial emergency assistance, the country is now having to use its own public funds to pay a private company for the retrieval, shipment and processing of the toxic waste in France.

The costs of this operation plus the medium-term and long-term rehabilitation of affected sites could approach $30 million, according to the Ivorian authorities.

In addition, the toxic waste poses cancer risks for people who were exposed to the fumes, an Ivorian researcher said Thursday.

"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," Charles Memel Kacou, director of the Ivorian environmental research institute IRSPE, told the Independent Online.


The Abidjan lagoon where the toxics were dumped on open air public rubbish heaps. The waste contaminated agricultural products near the dumpsites and fish in the lagoon. (Photo credit unknown)
"Irrespective of who will or who will not be held liable for this incident," said Steiner, "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, who are now being forced to actually pay the bill for removal and cleanup operations."

According to authorities with the Ivory Coast government, the waste was sent to Abidjan by the Dutch commodities trading firm Trafigura Beheer from a gasoline tanker.

Some 400 metric tons of the waste was dumped in at least eight sites in the densely populated city.

Fumes from the oily waste, in particular hydrogen sulfide, is what is believed to have killed and sickened residents. The Ivory Coast Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny dissolved his cabinet in the wake of the scandal.

The trading firm has denied any wrongdoing and blamed a company in the Ivory Coast for mishandling the toxic waste

On November 6, Trafigura appointed Lord Fraser of Carmyllie QC, a Scottish attorney, to chair an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the use of the company's chartered vessel the Probo Koala in June, July and August, including events in the Ivory Coast following the discharge of waste products.

Lord Fraser's inquiry will also investigate the organization and operating procedures of the company and consider port facilities and practices relating to the collection, transport and safe disposal of waste products associated with maritime and oil trading companies. The inquiry will also consider existing legislation and international conventions.

Trafigura's position is that the Probo Koala did not carry a cargo of toxic waste to West Africa. It carried a commercial cargo of 36,000 cubic meters of gasoline in normal trading from Estonia to Nigeria.

Following the delivery of the gasoline cargo to Nigeria, the Probo Koala offloaded 528 cubic metres of "chemical slops," consisting of spent caustic soda, gasoline residues and water, for commercial disposal in the Ivory Coast.

The chemical slops were the result of normal maritime gasoline trade operations during June and July 2006 and were, as is usual, held in separate waste tanks aboard the ship, the company says.

The ship's master and Trafigura's operational staff did not offload the slops in Nigeria, the company says, because of concerns that they would not be correctly disposed of by either of two companies who applied for the task.

"The next suitable port for offloading the chemical slops was Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, one of the largest and best equipped refinery ports in West Africa which has facilities for their safe disposal," the company says. Trafigura's shipping agent arranged for a government certified company to collect the slops from the ship and deliver them for disposal.

The company says these slops were "discharged into road tankers in daylight at a petroleum berth under the routine supervision of port, customs and environmental authorities" on August 20. The ship left Abidjan with all normal clearances from the port authorities on August 22.

The slops did not contain active hydrogen sulfide as alleged, according to Trafigura. "Hydrogen sulfide would have caused immediate serious illness to the ship's crew and the workers at the petroleum berth where the slops were offloaded. There were no such illnesses," the company said.


Greenpeace activists blocked the ship Probo Koala in the harbor of Paldiski, Estonia with the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, September 25, 2006. The activists were arrested and fined. (Photo by Christian Aslund courtesy Greenpeace)
What happened to the slops after they were offloaded from the ship, and the circumstances of the deaths and injuries which have been linked with them, are matters for the Ivorian investigations, Trafigura says, and company officials will co-operate fully with those investigations.

Two senior Trafigura executives, Claude Dauphin and Jean-Pierre Valentini, travelled to the Ivory Coast on September 14 "to see if they could help," the company said. Under arrest since September 18, the men, both French nationals, have been charged with poisoning and breaking toxic waste laws.

Eight other individuals, including officials who oversee customs and operations at the port as well as individuals from the companies that unloaded the waste, have been arrested and charged with violations of toxic waste laws.

The Probo Koala was impounded by Estonian police following a request from Ivory Coast Environment Minister Daniel Aka Ahizi and Judge Fatoumata Diakite, who are in charge of an Ivorian inquiry into the disaster, to immobilize the ship.

Steiner said assistance to meet Côte d'Ivoire's costs is now urgent, but he emphasized that this is not a unique case.

He warned that cases like this could escalate unless existing international regulations on toxic wastes, including those under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, are properly enforced and gaps between various treaties closed.

A 2005 report by the European Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law indicates that illegal trade is on the rise.

A joint enforcement operation carried out in 17 European seaports examined 3,000 shipping documents and physically inspected 258 cargo holds. Of these, 140 were waste shipments, of which 68, or 48 percent,turned out to be illegal.

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

"National and international laws are in place to regulate these exports," she said, "but problems arise because of the lack of legal and technical institutional capacity in many developing countries to monitor traffic across their borders."

"Strengthening the enforcement capacity of the Parties will therefore remain a priority for the Basel Convention in years to come," Kuwabara-Yamamoto said.

"We must assist Côte d'Ivoire now, but it cannot end there," said Steiner. "We must enforce existing laws in both OECD and developing countries alongside building the capacity for customs authorities and local waste management at ports and elsewhere to minimize the chances of such an incident occurring in the future,"

Steiner said, "One practical step forward that the international community must consider urgently is the ratification and thus bringing into force of the Liability and Compensation Protocol of the Basel Convention."

The Protocol, which provides a comprehensive regime for liability and compensation for damage resulting from the transboundary movements of hazardous and other wastes, including illegal traffic in those wastes, has so far been ratified by seven countries but it needs 20 ratifications to enter into force.

As an interim measure, the Basel Convention has an emergency fund. But so far, the fund consists of just US$270,000.

The U.S. government has sent three public health experts to Cote d’Ivoire and is committing $50,000 to help care for those who have been exposed to the toxic substances at Ministry of Health clinics.