French nationals arrested as Ivory Coast clean-up begins

The clean-up of a toxic spill that left seven dead and thousands in need of medical treatment began this week in the Ivory Coast while two Frenchmen from the company which chartered the ship from which the waste originated were arrested as they tried to leave the country.

French clean-up specialists Seche sent around 25 operatives to the West African state to clear the toxic sludge from more than ten sites around the city of Abidjan and the lagoon around which it is built.

The operations is expected to take up to two weeks.

Meanwhile, two French executives from the Dutch-based commodity trader Trafigura which had chartered the ship that brought in the waste, the Probo Koala, were arrested and had their passports seized as they tried to leave the country.

They have been named by the company as director Claude Dauphin and manager for West Africa Jean Pierre Valentini and have been charged with pollution offences under Ivorian law.

A Nigerian and seven Ivorians have also been arrested in connection with the illegal dumping of the waste, which led to Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny sacking his government last week (see related story).

Trafigura has issued a statement saying it is shocked at the arrest of its employees who it claims were part of a humanitarian mission to help the authorities with the clean-up by providing technical information about the cargo.

The company programme was also donating medicines to help with the treatment of the victims and had offered to help with transportation and the cost of the disposal of the sludge.

Trafigura maintains it has not acted illegally and paid a local company to dispose of the waste properly.

“Trafigura has a stringent policy on the disposal of any waste, according to international conventions, and respects and adheres to all relevant requirements,” read the statement.

“The slops from the Probo Koala were handed over to a certified local Abidjan slops disposal company, Compagnie Tommy, following Trafigura’s communication to the authorities of the nature of the slops, and a written request that the material should be safely disposed of, according to country laws, and with all correct documentation.

“Compagnie Tommy confirmed that the slops would be correctly processed as chemical slops, with the consent of both the Ministry of Transport and the Port Authorities.”

The World Health Organisation has sent experts to support Ivorian medical professionals, including a toxicologist and environmental specialist, and says the healthcare system is buckling under the strain.

“The overwhelming numbers of people seeking medical attention because of this chemical waste are severely disrupting medical services and have resulted in shortages of medicines,” said a spokesperson for WHO.

“This has put a double burden on the already weak health system of Cote d’Ivoire. This crisis has shown that the country does not have the capacity to deal with such an emergency.”

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is also investigating whether there has been a breech of the Basel Convention, a protocol which regulates the movement of hazardous waste across international borders, and is considering whether it might be able to help fund the clean-up, which is likely to cost in excess of US$13 million.

Sam Bond

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