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Thousands Sickened by Toxic Waste in Ivory Coast

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The people of Ivory Coast have been grappling with a much more serious environmental problem: the dumping of toxic chemical waste. Seven people have died and more than 30,000 have become sick around the main city, Abidjan. After inhaling fumes from the waste, victims began suffering vomiting, breathing difficulties and migraines. Yesterday, in response to a public outcry, the prime minister appointed new ministers for the environment and transport.

James Copnall is a reporter in Abidjan covering the story for the BBC. He joins me now. Can you tell us exactly what was dumped, where, and when this all happened?

Mr. JAMES COPNALL (BBC): Well, it all happened in the middle of August, August the 19th. A ship in Abidjan's port called the Probo Koala, a foreign-owned ship, arrived with toxic cargo, and the owners of the ship, or the people who chartered it, at any rate, say that they adequately informed the Ivorian authorities of the dangerous nature of the cargo. The liquid was then transported in we believe ten lorries to at least eleven sites around the city, where it was dumped, from a main rubbish dump to a sewage system to just out in the open air in several places. There is still an inquiry going on to establish who exactly is responsible for dumping this toxic liquid. But what is certain is that people got sick pretty quickly.

ELLIOTT: Now, what is this waste? What it is made up of and how does it smell?

Mr. COPNALL: Well, it smells almost like petrol, a very strong sort of petrolly smell, which immediately, if you go close to it, makes your eyes smart, gives you a headache. It seems to be the slops left over from transporting of gasoline. At least that's what the company who chartered the boat, Trafigura, say, and tests are going on at the moment to discover the exact toxic components of the waste.

ELLIOTT: Is there any idea of where it came from?

Mr. COPNALL: Well, it was transported by this boat initially from Europe and it seems to have been turned away from the port of Amsterdam before arriving in Abidjan. There's of course questions about how then it was able to be dumped in these various sites around the city, questions that to this day remain unanswered.

ELLIOTT: Is a cleanup now underway?

Mr. COPNALL: A cleanup has just begun. A French company has been given the contract to clean up, but there's no real timeframe for how long this is going to take. Clearly it will take weeks, possibly longer, because there's at least 11 sites and the process will take a long time, and as long as it does, the people living nearby will be at risk.

ELLIOTT: How have the people of Ivory Coast responded to this crisis?

Mr. COPNALL: Well, not very well, as you would imagine. Particularly in light of the fact that it seemed for a long time that the government reaction was very, very slow, and that led to thousands of people taking to the streets and that indirectly at least led to the resignation of the government about ten days ago. There have been further protests since then. The minister of transport, before he was removed from office was attacked and beaten up along with his wife by angry protesters, and I think there's sort of a mass fear, really, that has taken hold of people in Abidjan.

Many of these people I think aren't even that ill, but there's sort of - a very understandable fear has taken hold of people here, worry that every time someone has a headache or a throat ache, immediately (unintelligible) toxic waste, toxic waste. So clearly people are very, very angry at what has happened.

ELLIOTT: James Copnall of the BBC in Abidjan. Thank you.

Mr. COPNALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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