· 'Botched disposal affected 40,000 in Ivory Coast'
· British freight firm denies responsibility for illnesses
Lawyers will today begin preparing the ground for one of the largest class actions heard in the UK over 400 tonnes of allegedly highly toxic waste dumped in the Ivory Coast from a cargo ship chartered by a London-based company.
The legal team will start taking statements from thousands of witnesses. At least 10 people died and more than 40,000 sought medical advice after suffering from sickness and nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, breathlessness, headaches, skin damage, and swollen stomachs. Hospitals, health centres and the Red Cross were overwhelmed after noxious fumes drifted over the city. Amid angry protests and panic, the government temporarily collapsed.
According to Leigh Day, the British law firm which arrived yesterday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic capital, up to 5,000 people may sue those to blame.
Waste from the oil tanker Probo Koala was dumped on rubbish tips, poured down drains and left at roadsides, in abattoirs and in lagoons, claimed Ivory Coast and the UN Environment Programme. Water supplies were contaminated and fisheries and schools closed. Half the 18 dumping sites have still not been decontaminated.
The waste is now being taken to France for disposal but yesterday the UN said Ivory Coast was unable to pay and called on rich countries to help fund the estimated $30m (£15m) clean-up bill.
"One of the world's poorest countries is having to pay for the recovery, shipment and decontamination of toxic waste originally produced thousands of miles away in the industrialised world," said Unep spokesman Nick Nuttall in Nairobi, Kenya. "The Ivorian government is being forced to choose between paying hospital bills and the costs of decontamination."
The Probo Koala, chartered by the London-based arm of the shipping giant Trafigura, docked at Amsterdam on July 2 on its way to Estonia having crossed the Atlantic via Gibraltar. Trafigura agreed with Amsterdam Port Services, a specialist firm, that APS would remove the contents of its ship's slop tank for £17,000. APS claims it was told that the waste was conventional and began to unload.
According to APS, the smells were so pungent and unusual that the Dutch stopped the operation and asked for more money to treat the waste. After a dispute, it is alleged Trafigura ordered the material to be pumped back onto the vessel which then set off for Abidjan, via the Canaries, Togo, and Nigeria, arriving on August 19.
A local company, Tommy, was employed to remove the waste. But sources in Abidjan claim they had no experience of toxic waste disposal. The waste was put into at least 12 tanker trucks. It is thought the drivers then took it to rubbish tips, only to be stopped by residents concerned about the smell. The drivers allegedly then dumped the waste around the city.
Allegations that the waste had high levels of caustic soda, as well as a sulphur compound and hydrogen sulphide, have been strongly denied by Trafigura.
In a statement, the company says: "The Probo Koala offloaded 528 cubic metres of 'chemical slops' - spent caustic soda, gasoline residues and water. The slops were the result of normal maritime gasoline trade operations and did not contain active hydrogen sulphide ...
"Hydrogen sulphide would have caused immediate serious illness to the ship's crew and the workers at the petroleum berth where the slops were offloaded. There were no such illnesses. What happened to the slops after they were offloaded from the ship, and the circumstances of the deaths and injuries which have been linked with them, are matters for the Ivorian investigations."
Martyn Day, of Leigh Day, said: "Although the events took place thousands of miles away it is right that this British company is made to account for its actions by the British courts."
Trafigura has sanctioned an independent inquiry, chaired by the former Scottish minister Lord Fraser of Carmyllie.
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