Dozens of sealed containers filled with toxic waste were headed for France yesterday, two months after they were dumped across Ivory Coast's main city in a scandal authorities claim killed 10 people.
Packed into rows of cylindrical containers, the waste left Abidjan's port just before midnight on Friday aboard the MN Toucan, a vessel belonging to the French shipping company, Maritime Nantaise. The ship's captain, Franck Ouvray, said it would take about 10 days to transport the first of four loads of the waste to Le Havre, France.
Tredi International, the French company contracted by the Ivorian government to clean up the waste from 17 sites around Abijdan, has removed about 5,000 tonness of toxins and dirt since Sept. 17.
Tredi spokesman Henri Petitgand said clean-up crews had not finished and were still working at two sites. He said once the containers get to France, it will take about two weeks to neutralize their toxic contents.
The waste was offloaded in Abidjan on Aug. 19 from the Probo Koala, a vessel chartered by the Dutch commodities trading company, Trafigura Beheer BV.
Trafigura officials say the ship was carrying a cargo of gasoline and stopped in Abidjan to dispose of the content of the ship's waste tanks, known as "slops."
Trafigura says the waste disposed of in Abidjan was a mix of gasoline residues, water and caustic sodas used to clean slops.
UN experts say the waste that was dumped in Abidjan contained hydrogen sulfide, which in concentrated doses can kill humans. Trafigura officials say it is a mystery how the hydrogen sulfide got there, as caustic sodas typically used to clean slops cannot produce the toxic substance, according to Trafigura.
Ivory Coast's Health Ministry says 10 people have died in areas where the waste was dumped. The ministry says more than 60 people have also been hospitalized and more than 100,000 have sought medical treatment.
As the waste moved out on Friday, the strong scent of rotting garlic was still detectable. Residents have come to associate the smell with the lethal fumes that led to diarrhea, headaches, breathing problems and small spots on their skin immediately after the waste was jettisoned.
Safiatou Ba N'daw, who heads a special Ivorian government committee set up to deal with the crisis, said the fact the toxic waste was being shipped out of Ivory Coast didn't mean the crisis was over.
"I would not say this is the end," she said. "We must not forget that we are still cleaning the ground, and we still have to clean the lagoon and the sewage system."
Authorities here have jailed seven people, including four Ivorian officials. All have been charged with breaking local toxic waste disposal laws.