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Hazardous waste flows to poor nations
The Associated Press
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Not long after hundreds of tons of toxic waste were jettisoned around Ivory Coast's main city under cover of darkness, Jean-Jacques Kakou and thousands of others awoke to an overpowering stench that burned the eyes and made it hard to breathe.
Three weeks later, Kakou was dead — one of at least 10 deaths authorities suspect were linked to dumping that has thrown light on a growing global trade in hazardous waste. Poison is still being shipped out of developed nations to the Third World despite international legislation.
"This is a wake-up call," Greenpeace's Helen Perivier said of the one of the worst waste scandals of the last decade — one that saw toxic black sludge dumped at 17 sites in Abidjan on Aug. 19.
Two months later, the cleanup is still under way.
Outrage over similar incidents in the 1980s, including the dumping by Italian businessmen of 8,000 drums of chemical waste on a Nigerian beach in 1987, prompted creation of international legislation.
The so-called Basel Convention was amended in 1995 to include a ban on toxic-waste shipments from industrialized nations, and experts say it has helped stem the flow of many kinds of chemical or industrial wastes to Africa and Asia.
But other detritus from the developed world known as electronic waste — discarded computers and televisions sets — is growing and may be an even greater concern, environmental experts say. According to the U.N., about 20 million to 50 million tons of "e-waste" is generated worldwide annually. Such waste contains toxins like lead and mercury or other chemicals that can poison waterways if buried or pour toxins into the air if burned.
"Hazardous electronic waste is flowing to Africa on container ships every day. It's not as dramatic as was what happened in Ivory Coast, but over the long run it will have more of an environmental impact," Jim Puckett, founder of the Seattle-based environmental watchdog, Basel Action Network, told The Associated Press by telephone from London.
"More of it is being produced and it is still flowing down the path of least resistance — from the rich countries to the poor," he said.
Some African states, including Ivory Coast, have failed to ratify the main amendment to the Basel Convention. Key nations like the United States — which produces the most hazardous waste per capita of any country in the world — have rejected it altogether.
Ivory Coast's own tragedy began July 2, when a Korean-built, Greek-managed, Panamanian-flagged tanker chartered by the multibillion-dollar Dutch commodities-trading company Trafigura Beheer BV docked in Amsterdam to discharge its load, according to Greenpeace. The ship had been acting as a storage vessel for unrefined gasoline, and Trafigura said it was trying to get rid of "washings" left behind after a routine cleaning with caustic soda.
Amsterdam port officials agreed to dispose of the waste for $15,000, but after realizing it was a bigger load and tougher to cope with than expected, upped the price. Trafigura refused to pay, and left.
The ship traveled on to Estonia, and then Africa — where it found a local company in Ivory Coast called Tommy that agreed to dispose of the waste for roughly the original price.
But Tommy lacked facilities to get rid of the waste. Ivorian officials and witnesses say more than a dozen trucks contracted by Tommy simply poured 528 tons of the waste at 17 public sites around Abidjan after midnight Aug. 19: the lagoonside city's main garbage dump;a roadside field beside a prison.; a sewage canal.
Tests later showed the sludge contained mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, a potent poison that, particularly in confined spaces, can cause blackouts, respiratory failure and death.
More than 100,000 Abidjan residents sought treatment, 69 were hospitalized and 10 died, though the exact reasons are still under investigation.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company