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Ten years after toxic waste dumping, victims in the dark

Côte d'Ivoire
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By Lucy Ghaham - A small health centre sits at the edge of Djibi, a village of 4,500 people on the outskirts of the bustling city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Through the open-ended corridor that runs down the middle of the building you can see two of the many sites around Abidjan where, exactly ten years ago, truck after truck dumped over 540,000 litres of toxic waste unloaded from a ship at the nearby port.

The toxic waste was made by multinational oil trader Trafigura. For three months over the summer of 2006, Trafigura essentially operated a floating oil refinery on the seas of Europe. On board that ship Trafigura treated a dirty oil product, mixed it with gasoline and then sold it as petrol in West Africa among other places.

This process also produced dangerous chemical waste that Trafigura had no idea how to dispose of safely. The waste was eventually dumped at 18 sites around Abidjan, the largest city in West Africa, by a local company Trafigura hired to dispose of it for just under US$17,000.

The dumping had a devastating effect on the people of Abidjan – in the next six months tens of thousands streamed into its hospitals and health centres suffering from symptoms like breathing difficulties, vomiting, headaches, weeping eyes, nosebleeds and skin lesions.

The dumping had a devastating effect on the people of Abidjan – in the next six months tens of thousands streamed into its hospitals and health centres suffering from symptoms like breathing difficulties, vomiting, headaches, weeping eyes, nosebleeds and skin lesions. Authorities reported 15 deaths.

The government built the health centre in Djibi in recognition of the significant impact of the dumping on the village. One doctor involved in the emergency response said he thought it “likely that the entire population of that village were victims of the waste”. In a 2012 report on the disaster, The Toxic Truth, Amnesty International and Greenpeace estimated that around 70,000 litres of waste were dumped near Djibi. Overflowing bags of toxic soil from other dumpsites were stored there until mid-2010. The Côte d’Ivoire government only announced nine months ago that the treatment of that soil had been completed.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the dumping, Djibi’s health centre symbolises the toxic legacy of this disaster.

The clinic felt abandoned when I visited in July 2016. There were only three people there – two providing maternity services and the other a nurse who visited once a week. Villagers told us it has no money to buy medication. Its corridors were totally empty of patients, devoid of the cries of children and the normal hustle and bustle of hospitals.

Victims told us that they feel similarly abandoned. While Trafigura provided some compensation, many victims have not received any compensation. No one has ever checked-up on their health or assessed the potential long-term risks of the chemicals in the waste. Most still don’t know what was in the waste – to this day Trafigura has never disclosed the exact contents of the waste and its potential impacts. Abidjan residents believe the dumpsites have not been fully cleaned-up because they can still smell the waste when it rains heavily. Despite this, people grow vegetables on the dumpsites.

Two things have inevitably filled this vacuum in information and action, prolonging an already toxic legacy.

The first is fear.

Of the 38 Abidjan residents we spoke to, nearly all believe they are still ill from inhaling chemicals in the waste. The government only announced in December 2015 that the dumpsites have been fully cleaned-up, although this is yet to be confirmed. People worry about any long-term impacts on them and their families – especially because no one has ever checked-up on their health and because they don’t know exactly what was in the waste.

The second thing to fill that vacuum is exploitation.

In a desperate search for some sense of justice, victims have joined associations that make unsubstantiated guarantees of compensation from Trafigura through legal claims in return for upfront fees and a share of any damages that are awarded. It can seem that some of these associations are more interested in making money than genuinely helping victims. While joining fees can vary between US$2 and US$8, victims in one group told us they had paid fees and other charges of US$35 each. This may not sound much but many of the victims have little money and some of these associations have up to 50,000 members. There is also a risk that, if compensation money is paid directly to the associations, they won’t distribute it to their members – as happened to around $6 million of the money awarded in one UK claim concerning the disaster.

After years of conflict and civil unrest, Côte d’Ivoire is taking steps in the right direction. At the government’s request and cost, the United Nations Environment Programme recently finished checking if all the dumpsites had been fully decontaminated. It plans to issue its report later this year. The government has also asked a local laboratory to check the health of all victims in Djibi village.

But governments can and need to do more to support and reassure the victims – including finally compelling Trafigura to disclose the exact contents of the waste, checking the health of all people exposed to the waste and assessing and disclosing the potential long-term health and environmental risks.

As I leave Abidjan I share the victims’ feeling that they have been abandoned to their own fate. As one person we interviewed said, “Trafigura has turned the page”. The victims don’t have that luxury.

Trafigura denies responsibility for the dumping and maintains that it believed the local company would dispose of the waste safely and lawfully.