<%@ LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" %> Ivory Coast Tragedy Prompts Call for Stricter Toxic Waste Treaty

Ivory Coast Tragedy Prompts Call for Stricter Toxic Waste Treaty

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast September 11, 2006 (ENS) - The toxic waste tragedy in the Ivory Coast has now claimed six lives and injured some 9,000, health officials said Monday. Environmentalists called the events in the Ivorian city of Abidjan a sad reminder that the world is failing to implement and enforce the international law created to protect people from the global trade of hazardous materials.

Furthermore, the Ivory Coast tragedy is only the latest example of a resurgence of toxic waste dumping by rich nations in poor ones, according to Jim Puckett, a hazardous waste trade expert with the Basel Action Network.

"We've been here before," Puckett said. "This looks like 1988 all over again but actually there is even more evidence now of death and disease from waste trade than ever before. Ironically today we have the international rules to control or prohibit such global dumping but we are lacking in the diligent enforcement and implementation of these hard won laws."

The 1989 international hazardous waste treaty, known as the Basel Convention, was designed to curb the prevent the developed world from transferring hazardous wastes to the world's poorer countries. It was forged in the wake of several international scandals involving the dumping of toxic wastes in poor nations by industrialized countries.

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The world's computers and other electronics are often shipped to poor nations for disposal. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
But the accord does not prohibit waste exports to any location except Antarctica and several parties to the convention were quickly convinced it did not go far enough. In 1995, an amendment to the treaty was established to prohibit waste exports from developed nations to the rest of the world.

The amendment has been implemented in the European Union, but has not entered into force globally. A long list of countries has failed to ratify the treaty. The list includes wealthy nations who oppose the ban, such as the United States, Canada and Australia, and developing countries, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, and - ironically - the Ivory Coast.

It is uncertain if the world will heed the tragedy in Abidjan, but disaster relief and health experts from the United Nations and the World Health Organization have gone to the city to help develop a clean-up plan. French health officials are also providing assistance and expect to compile a report on the waste by the end of the week.

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

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

Fumes from the oily waste, in particular hydrogen sulfide, have killed and sickened residents of the West African nation's largest city. The Ivory Coast's prime minister dissolved his 32-member cabinet last week 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. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) is investigating reports that the toxic waste may have been illegally exported and examining whether the Basel Convention's trust fund can be used to help pay for the clean-up operation, which could cost more than $13 million.

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The toxic waste dumped in Abidjan is more woe for a country ravaged by war. (Photo by Issouf Sanogo courtesy Human Rights Watch)
Under the accord, the any nation exporting hazardous waste must obtain prior written permission from the importing country, as well as a permit detailing the contents and destination of the waste. If the waste has been transferred illegally, the exporter is obliged to take back the waste and pay the costs of any damages and clean-up process.

"The disaster in Abidjan is a particularly painful illustration of the human suffering caused by the illegal dumping of wastes," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said

As global trade flows expand and tough domestic controls raise the costs of hazardous wastes disposal in developed countries, Steiner added, "opportunities and incentives for illegal trafficking of wastes will continue to grow."

The Basel Action Network said the situation in the Ivory Coast is only one example that this trend is already on the rise. This month another ship load of oily residue waste was exported illegally to the Philippines, according to the watchdog group, and seaports in Asia and Africa are daily being inundated with container loads of hazardous electronic waste as old computers, monitors, phones, and other cast-off electronic devices from rich developed countries.

The organization said much of this electronic waste is simply dumped or sent to primitive recycling operations that endanger workers and the local environment.

In addition, old ships are exported to poorly regulated, dirty recycling operations India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"Unfortunately if it's easy to poison the poor for profit, unscrupulous operators and businesses will do it," Puckett said. "That is why the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban were created - to prevent the effluent of the affluent being foisted on developing countries. It is now time for every nation to enforce those rules and end this environmental injustice once and for all."