On the uninhabited Atlantic island of Fassa off Guinea, the trees began to shrivel.
When the government of the West African nation investigated, it found the problem was 15,000 metric tons of unspecified toxic ash shipped from Philadelphia that had been dumped by a Norwegian company on the island.Guinea's government in Conakry arrested Norway's honorary consul general, Sigmund Strome, on a charge of complicity in the dumping.
The Guineans cracked down on toxic waste after seeing Fassa's trees shrivel, but the prospect of multimillion-dollar paydays is luring an increasing number of African countries into becoming dumpsites for millions of tons of toxic waste from industrialized Western countries.
In Guinea's case, Aluco-Guinea, a government-controlled company, signed a contract to accept 85,000 metric tons of waste at $50 a ton. The government canceled the deal in April and demanded that the waste on Fassa be returned to the country of origin.
The government also arrested several Ministry of Commerce employees who granted import licenses for the waste.
Strome, the honorary consul general, has no formal diplomatic status, the Norwegian government said in Oslo, and was employed by Norway's Klaveness shipping group, which engaged the vessels for the waste shipments to Guinea.
Tom Prestesulen, a Klaveness spokesman, described the waste as slag ash and denied it was toxic. "The content of toxics are well below approved U.S. levels," he said.
The Guinea case nevertheless stirred concern in neighboring West African countries.
"It doesn't matter what amount of money they are offered," said Foreign Minister Omar Sey of Gambia. "You don't know, but you mortgage the entire history of your people.
"You liberate your countries from colonialism and you talk about imperialism, apartheid. But what is more horrible than dumping nuclear and toxic waste?"
Sey said that Gambia, a country about the size of Connecticut and sandwiched like a sausage by Senegal, has been approached by U.S. and French companies who wanted a site to dump toxic wastes.
According to government officials and representatives of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, nearly a dozen African countries either have signed or are negotiating contracts to accept industrial wastes or have been approached.
Led by Nigeria, Africa has been unusually candid about the problem, calling names and pointing fingers.
"We heard that Benin had been considering accepting nuclear wastes from France, and on hearing this, we sent a delegation to the Republic of Benin," Foreign Minister Ike Nwachukwu of Nigeria told The Associated Press. "We were told that they had been approached, but that they had turned it down and would not allow any dumping."
Nigeria has not escaped the problem, however.
The government announced June 11 that preliminary tests of waste secretly dumped in eastern Nigerian by an Italian company show the substances to be poisonous. Scientists urged that anyone who visited the dump site to undergo medical tests.
The government also said it had seized an Italian ship in Lagos harbor and ordered it to take the wastes back to Italy.
A government spokesman, Yusufu Mamman, said some Nigerians and Italians had been arrested for the dumping, but he did not identify them.
He told reporters five shipments of waste had been brought to Nigeria from Italy since Aug. 26, 1987, with the latest arriving May 20. The shipments totaled 4,766 tons, of which about 2,000 had actually been dumped, he said.
Earlier, Nigeria's Guardian newspaper reported that 10 European companies covertly dumped in the country more than 20 of the world's most dangerous industrial toxic wastes, including radioactive materials.
The newspaper said the wastes has been brought in falsely under a permit granted by the government for the import of chemicals for construction projects. It added that the wastes, dumped near an oil terminal at Forcados, 150 miles southeast of Lagos, included such poisonous materials as melamine wastes from Norway and polyurethanes and ethyl acetate formaldehyde from Italy.
While few African countries talk openly of their involvement in dumping, they are not ignoring the problem.
In late May, the government of the Congo announced the arrests of five people, including an adviser to the prime minister, in what became known as "the industrial waste affair."
Political adviser Dieudonne Ganga, environment director Marius Issanga Gamissimi, external trade director Abel Tchicou, lawyer Vincent Gomes and artisan Jean Passi were accused of establishing a fictious company with the intent of covertly accepting toxic wastes.
Ganga purportedly initiated contacts with the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, the Congo's capital, on a plan for the Congolese Co. to stock 1 million metric tons of industrial waste.
The company would have earned $4.2 million a year under a three-year contract, the government said. Officials said the five "had admitted their guilt."
The U.S. Embassy has not commented on the affair.
Prodded by Nigeria, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), at its recent silver jubilee summit session, adopted a resolution condemning the dumping of industrial wastes in Africa, calling the practice "a crime against Africa and the African peoples."
Barely a week later, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, unanimously adopted a resolution banning large-scale exports of toxic waste from Western Europe to Third World countries.
Despite the public pronouncements, few expect any quick resolution of the problem.
"Quite a lot of the business is going on somewhere in the twilight," said Jan Huismans, director of the Geneva-based International Register of Potentionally Toxic Chemicals, an arm of UNEP. "I think it is economics. I can't see any other benefit of receiving this waste."
Money also is a factor for Western industries, which account for the bulk of the 300 million metric tons of industrial wastes produced annually worldwide.
Stringent environmental laws in the West, like those imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, demand on-site disposal facilities that can cost as much as $30 million and take years to build. And to ship toxic wastes from California - which churns out 10 million metric tons of wastes a year - across the United States to a landfill in New Jersey costs about $800 a barrel.
Industrialized countries also are under public pressure to keep toxic landfills away from rapidly expanding residential areas.
Huismans, a toxicologist, said that most hazardous wastes shipped to Africa are so vaguely described that it is impossible to know from their names whether they are dangerous.