Who Is Behind Ivory Coast Dumping?
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Imagine waking up and finding your yard filled with sludge that is so toxic the odor burns your nose and eyes. That's what happened recently to residents of the West African nation of the Ivory Coast.
Under cover of night, several local companies, hired by a European oil and metals trading firm, secretly dumped hundreds of tons of petrochemical waste into neighborhoods across the capital of Abidjan.
NPR's Tony Cox spoke with Lydia Polgreen, an Africa correspondent for The New York Times. She's been covering the story and says exposure to the sludge has killed at least eight locals and injured far more.
Ms. LYDIA POLGREEN (Correspondent, The New York Times): Most of the people who were exposed right immediately after the event suffered from pretty severe headaches, nausea, vomiting and then later seemed to get these rashes and skin problems. The worst problems seemed to be in children. It should be noted, of course, that because they haven't done toxicology studies and things like that, it's not exactly clear which chemicals were causing these types of health problems. But in addition to the health problems that you saw, there was also the element of panic.
So many people were scared of being sick that they were overwhelming the already overstretched health facilities available in Ivory Coast. So that had kind of a knock-on effect as well.
TONY COX: Is this an example of what the - of the so-called garbage cowboys at work, where people are trying to find a place to dump this material and sometimes they will find a willing buyer who will work with them surreptitiously during the night to get the job done? Is that what happened here?
Ms. POLGREEN: Well, what appears to have happened is that this company had an opportunity to dispose of the waste in a legal and safe manner in Europe and chose not to do so apparently for reasons of cost. It would have cost them about 250,000 Euros, which is about $300,000, to dispose of it safely in Europe. But apparently they balked at the price. And they were able to find somebody in Ivory Coast that said that they could dispose of this waste safely, although the experts that we talked to told us that there are no such facilities in the Ivory Coast, that they're not capable of dealing with waste that has this level of toxicity. So it would appear that that's exactly what has happened in this case.
COX: So who is being held accountable, if anyone, for this?
Ms. POLGREEN: Well, there are a number of investigations going on both in Europe and in Africa. Several government officials as well as company officials in Ivory Coast are being held on criminal charges. It's not clear exactly what those charges are yet. And in Europe of course there are a number of investigations going on. There could be responsibility even within the Dutch government, for example, because they allowed the ship to pump back this waste into the hold of the ship, and that may have been a violation of international law and Dutch law. So there could be responsibility at a number of levels on both continents.
COX: Final question is this: Is Africa considered a dumping ground? I understand that in this particular case other African nations did not allow them to discharge this material in their countries, but Ivory Coast, as you've already explained, is one that did allow this to happen. So is Africa, generally speaking, a dumping ground for toxic material from Europe?
Ms. POLGREEN: Africa is absolutely a dumping ground not only for Europe but also for the United States. Tons and tons of computer equipment are sent every month to African ports, and there are no facilities to safely dispose of this stuff. So the cheap gadgets that we use here in the U.S. often end up in African dumping grounds where they can poison people. In terms of toxic waste from Europe, there has consistently been a problem. One study found that as much as half of the toxic waste coming from Europe to - leaving from Europe is leaving illegally.
So clearly this is a huge problem. And as long as you have countries that are not particularly well governed or don't have strong regulations to protect people and are willing to bend the rules in order to take the money from these companies that want to dump this stuff, then you're going to continue to have this same problem.
COX: Lydia, thank you very much.
Ms. POLGREEN: It's my pleasure.
CHIDEYA: That again was New York Times Africa correspondent Lydia Polgreen.