Clean up of toxic waste begins in Abidjan
(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-09-19 06:03

A clean-up operation has begun to remove hundreds of tons of toxic waste from Cote d'Ivoire's largest city as the government worked to recover from a dumping scandal that has led to at least six deaths and cost two ministers their jobs.

A team of 25 waste removal experts in protective suits, gas masks and plastic gloves on Sunday began pumping the hazardous black sludge from the city's main garbage dump, one of up to 14 sites across Abidjan that the United Nations says have been contaminated.

The chemical refuse is byproduct from a fuel shipment apparently dumped illegally in late August by a contractor working for a Dutch-based commodities company. The Cote d'Ivoire Government said at least six people have died from exposure to the waste, while thousands have sought treatment at hospitals.

Eight people at the Chinese Embassy, including Ambassador Ma Zhixue, also had symptoms of poisoning. The embassy said it would continue to remind local Chinese to take self-protection measures. So far, no death of Chinese people has been reported.

A UN report said the waste contains a chemical called hydrogen sulfide, which gives off a smell reminiscent of rotten eggs and which can kill humans in large doses.

"This is dangerous stuff," said Henri Petitgand, a spokesman for the French company charged with removing the waste. "People should not get near it without protective gear."

The waste was discovered by residents who began complaining of a nauseating stench and persistent health problems such as vomiting, sore throats and headaches last month.

The waste removal operation comes a day after a new 36-member cabinet was appointed. The ministers of transport and environment have been replaced and several new posts have been created. The entire cabinet resigned last week as a result of the dumping scandal, but almost all were reappointed to their same posts.

Garbage has filled the streets of Abidjan as waste sites have been blocked off. Residents' protests against the dumping turned violent briefly on Saturday, with young men burning the house of a port official and attacking the deposed transport minister.

The clean-up operation was expected to take two weeks, Petitgand said.

Donor countries are helping the government pay for the clean-up operation but infrastructure minister Patrick Achi said those responsible for the dumping were expected to reimburse the costs.

Under the international Basel agreement, which was signed in 1989 to protect poor countries from dumping of hazardous waste, a country found responsible for the dumping of toxic waste must pay for its removal.

(China Daily 09/19/2006 page7)