COTE D'IVOIRE: Thousands of toxic waste victims could miss out on compensation

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thousands of people poisoned by toxic waste illegally dumped in Cote d’Ivoire in August 2006 might receive no part of a US$198-million settlement because they sought treatment in health facilities not certified by the government, according to a researcher who has studied the victims’ cases.

The researcher said the study provides the only tally of victims who may have been left off of government compensation lists, which were based on registrations at state-certified hospitals.

Sixteen people died and tens of thousands fell ill in August 2006 when poisonous waste arriving by ship was then dumped in residential areas of the commercial capital, Abidjan.

The government – after signing a settlement over the illegal dumping in February – drew up a list of some 95,000 victims based on information provided by state hospitals. But many people sought medical care in non-state-certified clinics or through traditional healers and did not present themselves at the designated hospitals to be registered. These victims, the researcher says, could fall through the cracks.

“It is clear that under the [government] criteria, numerous victims will not be compensated, even though they continue to suffer,” Dongo Kouassi of the Swiss Center for Scientific Research (CSRS), told IRIN on the sidelines of a conference in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

“According to an investigation led by the centre, the first of its kind in the country, more than 60 percent of the toxic waste victims went to non-conventional health centres not recognised by the state,” he said during his presentation at the conference. “So it is clear that the majority of victims will receive nothing.”

Kouassi said CSRS conducted an investigation in late 2006, visiting over 800 households near 14 polluted sites in Abidjan. CSRS plans to present its results to the government later in September before publishing its report.

The government list says 95,247 people were affected by the waste, which arrived at the Abidjan port on a ship charted by the Dutch-based multinational Trafigura. Trafigura hired an Ivorian government-certified company to discharge the sludge, which was dumped throughout the city.

Part of the problem is that it is not clear which sources the government has used for its list. “We have to clarify who got on the list and how,” Dongo told IRIN. He said he hopes presenting the data on people who went to non-certified clinics will help ensure they are included.

A health ministry spokesman acknowledged that some victims could miss out on damages. “We know that some people got medical care in [non-certified] clinics or other places,” said N’da K. Simeon. “It is a pity that they have been excluded.”

N’da added, “We are not involved in this matter of compensation. It’s the presidential unit that is in charge of it and that defined the rules without consulting us.”

But the presidential toxic waste office says it is the other way around. “[The list] was sent to us by the Ministry of Public Health and Hygiene,” Mathieu Zadi told IRIN. “The work was led by the Institute for Public Hygiene, financed by the World Health Organisation. To fail to recognise that, that’s the health ministry not wanting to assume its responsibilities.”

Officials in the presidential office would not comment specifically on the CSRS study.

A lawyer representing toxic waste victims said people are pushing for a supplementary list for compensation. “The government drew up a list of the people who had been to government health centres,” said Martyn Day, lawyer with the British law firm Leigh Day & Co, which represents some 8,000 Ivorians who allege they have been injured by the toxic waste in a class-action law suit filed by Day against the multinational oil trader Trafigura.

“They did an excellent job in listing 100,000 people who [went to government facilities]. However, it is now clear that the list did not include some government centres – we think simply because of bureaucratic failings – and also did not include private health centres. Our clients have been asking the government to do an additional list to include these people.”
At the conference in Abidjan CSRS’s Dongo said: “We suggest a new approach to identify the real victims and give them the help they need, at the risk of seeing them perish.”

In an out-of-court settlement in February Trafigura agreed to pay the equivalent of US$198 million to the Ivorian government. Part of the money is to go environmental cleanup, part to compensating victims. The government has said the compensation process is a delicate task that takes time, given the risk of fraudulent claims and the importance of compensating legitimate victims.

According to a government website as of 11 September 36,467 victims or families of deceased victims had received damages. The payouts began on 29 June and are ongoing.

Source: IRIN
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