They didn’t understand why they were falling ill unexpectedly.
They didn’t realise some of them were going to die just like that. But die they did. At least sixteen of them. 95,000 others sought medical attention.
All they knew was that a terrible stench had filled the air near where they lived, in Abidjan, commercial capital of the Cote d’Ivoire.
Dr Michel Kouame Bouaffou, who heads two hospitals in the area permeated by the stench, said: “Headaches, pimples, vomiting, diarrhoea.
When you have 10 people on the same day with the same symptoms, you think it must have been down to the waste.”
Yes, it was toxic waste. It was dumped in Abidjan, in mid-2006.
Unknown to the inhabitants, Salomon Ugborugo, a local contractor, who had registered a company only a few weeks previously, had agreed, for a relatively small amount of money, to discharge toxic waste in some of the canals and rubbish dumps in the city.
The noxious stench from the waste caused breathing difficulties and eye problems for anyone unfortunate enough to breathe it in.
Salomon Ugborugbo, the contractor, had no experience in dumping wastes, or facilities for doing so.
But he had ‘somehow’ obtained a port licence shortly before the ship carrying the waste arrived. He then hired tanker-trucks to cart it away.
It does not take too much imagination to conclude that he paid bribes to be able to carry out his part of the operation.
The waste was in the form of black slurry that contained such compounds as mercaptans, mercaptides, sodium sulphide and dialkyl disulphides.
Anyone living or working nearby would risked suffering from burns, nausea, diarrhoea, loss of consciousness.
According to the London Guardian (which, together with the BBC‘s Newsnight television programme, bravely defied libel actions to expose the company that shipped the toxic waste to Abidjan): “The most sombre allegations concern the killer gas hydrogen sulphide. Sulphur compounds can break down in the environment and release it [hydrogen sulphide].
Reports of casualties followed a pattern which appears consistent with an escape of hydrogen sulphide.
Inhabitants near the dump sites reported respiratory and eye problems, while further away, people reported nauseating smells.”
The waste ended up being tipped all around Abidjan. However, the company responsible for shipping the waste, Trafigura (it is described as one of the largest oil trading firm in the world, with annual profits of nearly £500 million) issued a series of public statements which derided the victims’ claims to have been poisoned by the toxic waste as “imaginary.”
Trafigure stated: “There is no evidence to suggest that the slops would generate hydrogen sulphide at levels that could have caused the deaths and serious injuries alleged”.
However, whistleblowers within the company, disgusted by its mendacity and wickedness, have exposed its statements to have been complete lies.
They have leaked internal emails that the company’s employees and agents exchanged during the time they were seeking a place where they could dump the toxic waste.
The company has now been forced to announce that it is to make a payment of over £30 million to those who claim to have been harmed by the toxic waste.
But the compensation only works out to about £1,000 per claimant.
In 2007, the company paid over £100m to the Cote d’Ivoire Government for the toxic waste to be cleaned, and also to pay compensation to families of the 16 people who had died by then.
That previous payment was made by the company without any admission of liability. It led to the release of the company president, Claude Dauphin, from an Ivorian jail, and the termination of criminal prosecutions there against the company.
According to the Guardian, “Trafigura’s internal emails describe graphically how the secretive offshore firm hoped to make a fortune from buying up “bloody cheap” contaminated petrol. Thousands of tonnes of “coker gasoline” was being sold off from a Mexican state refinery at Cadereyta.
Trafigura trader James McNicol wrote from the firm’s Oxford Street [London] office block: “This is as cheap as anyone can imagine and should make serious dollars … Each cargo should make 7m!!”
To clean up the dirty fuel, which they described as “crap” or “shit”, the traders planned to add caustic soda to absorb sulphur contaminants, despite being told that this process was banned in Western countries.
The “most difficult” problem, they recorded, was how “to dispose of the resultant stinking toxic waste.”
One official admitted to another by email: “Caustic washes are banned by most countries due to the hazardous nature of the waste (mercaptans, phenols, smell). … There are not many facilities remaining in the market.”
A chartered tanker, the Probo Koala, was anchored off Gibraltar.
Between April and June, it took three cargoes, each of 28,000 tonnes of contaminated gasoline, and mixed them with caustic soda and a catalyst.
Its spare tanks soon filled up with waste containing freshly created sulphur compounds.
In June 2006, the tanker headed for Amsterdam.
A waste disposal firm was lined up there to discharge the waste, which was falsely described as being made of “simple routine slops from rinsing out petrol tanks.“
But the plan failed, after an “uproar” over the stench. Trafigura then reloaded the waste and sailed to poor, old Cote d’Ivoire, for the waste to be dumped by the local contractor they had lined up, Ugborugo.
(He is described by the Guardian as “a dubious local contractor” who, as has been noted before, had only registered his company a few weeks before.
The question we in Ghana have to ask ourselves is: could it happen here? Some of these trans-national companies are so rich and unscrupulous that they could register a local company, solely for the purpose of such murderous purposes.
For, ask yourself, how could such evil-smelling stuff have been able to leave Abidjan port without anyone raising a finger?
And what were Abidjan’s hundreds of gendarmes doing as the stuff was dumped all over the place at night? I bet if it had been an arms shipment, they would have been able to detect and intercept it. In so many African countries, the lives of the populace counts for far too little.
As they say, “It is only the fool who says, ‘they’ve done it to someone else, but as for me, they won’t do it to me.” Our port personnel should be reinforced with chemists and other technicians who can ensure that such a calamity can never happen in Ghana.
Don’t think I make that suggestion in jest.
Nigeria is an oil-producing country where, one would expect, knowledge of chemicals and chemical waste would be freely available.
Yet in 1988, at a place called Koko, toxic wastes were successfully dumped and created a health hazard that affected about 50 people.
It became quite a cause celebre. As in the Cote d’Ivoire case, a local agent was used.