Ivory Coast: Massive population poisoning, Dutch oil-trading company guilty?

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Trafigura, would have purposefully dumped deadly chemicals in Ivory Coast that poisoned and killed thousands of people in 2006. An Ivorian contractor Solomon Ugburogbu, who aided this treacherous act, is now serving a 20 year sentence. The big players in the case are yet to be held to account. “We are sending underlings to trial without trying their silent partner, Trafigura. For us, this trial has the bitter taste of impunity,” the president of the Union of Abidjan and Surrounding Areas’ Victims of Toxic Waste, Ouattara Aboubacar, had said at the beginning of the trial.

Evidence from e-mails have shown that Trafigura, giant Oil-trading company, went for the much cheaper option of dumping the waste in Africa; and it eventually ended up in Ivory Coast. According to sources, knowledge of the waste and problems of getting rid of it were certified by the company’s President Claude Dauphin. The Trafigura e-mails indicate that Mr. Dauphin was urging his team to be creative in how they dealt with the hazardous waste.

However, Trafigura said an Ivorian waste disposal company, Tommy Company, which had offloaded oil waste from the Panamanian-registered tanker Probo Koala, was responsible for the damage caused. Tonnes of poisonous sludge, the leftover low-quality oil, were dumped near residential communities in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. The poisonous sludge had not been treated to minimise the harmful effects of the waste. In a 16 September statement Trafigura denied all responsibility: “This is an environmental tragedy, but it is not one caused by Trafigura.”

Begins in Mexico

The chronology of this deadly voyage begins in Mexico. According to information from BBC, the oil-trading company had found an oil refinery in Mexico where a refining chemical processes produced a by-product – coker naptha, a dirty form of gasoline which could not be treated on site. Trafigura executives realized they could make a fortune by buying the dirty Mexican oil for cheap. “This is as cheap as anyone can imagine and should make serious dollars,” one of the e-mails read.

To sell the dirty oil at a profit, Trafigura first had to find a cheap way to clean the coker naptha and lower its sulphur levels. In the months leading to the deliberate chemical contamination of Abidjan, the company knew about the difficulties they would face in disposing of the waste elsewhere. “This operation is no longer allowed in the European Union, the United States and Singapore” it is “banned in most countries due to the “hazardous nature of the waste”, one e-mail warns. Another e-mail points out that “environmental agencies do not allow disposal of the toxic caustic”. In 2006, a ship called Probo Koala illegally dropped barrels of the chemical waste at 15 locations around Abidjan.

“Trafigura, who had been warned by the Dutch government about the need to properly treat and dispose of the waste, prior to the incident, was to pay about $10 000 for the initial disposal of what was believed to be unharmful slobs. Upon realising that they [the disposal company] were in fact dealing with untreated [waste], the cost rose to about $700 000. A cheaper option led Trafigura to the the Ivorian Tommy Company, which charged only $20 000 to dispose of the untreated 500 tonnes of toxic waste in the Ivorian capital, the most populous city in the West African country.” revealed a source. Greenpeance indicated that the toxic waste was exported illegally and documents forged to give the impression the toxic oil sludge was merely oil waste. Recently, Trafigura posted an annual turnover of $45 billon, twice the size of the entire Ivory Coast Economy.

Mass hospitalisations

In the weeks that followed the dumping, tens of thousands of people reported a range of similar symptoms, including breathing problems, nosebleeds, vomiting and diarrhea, according to a recent United Nations report. The UN report confirmed that deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the cargo ship. Trafigura has agreed to pay damages to settle a class action brought on behalf of over 30,000 who were allegedly injured by a UK firm — Leigh, Day & Company law firm. Up until now Trafigura had persistently denied that the waste was harmful. Some locals have expressed fears that the health disaster could result in widespread cancer.

Court, Libel, Settlement, Back to court

In fact, last year, Trafigura responded with a libel case against the Leigh, Day & Company, saying it had not shown evidence the sludge caused health problems. According to Trafigura, it could not be held responsible for existing lax dumping regulations: “People living near these sites had health problems as a result of untreated pollution and waste long before Tommy Company arrived with the slops [waste].” The case which was set to start in London in October 2009, showed that “they absolutely knew the waste aboard its ship was toxic. They brought it to Abidjan in a war-torn country with no treatment facilities.” Said Martyn Day of the UK-based Leigh, Day & Company Day, before the out of court settlement. Contrary to the Trafigura claims a UN investigation revealed that there was a “strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the cargo ship”.

On February 13, 2007, Trafigura signed an agreement and settled a civil case with the Ivorian government out of court for US$214 million, which the multimillion dollar international commodities trader said prevented them from pursuing it for liability or damages. But lawyers from the Paris-based non-profit human rights law firm, Sherpa Association, said the February 2007 agreement was illegal, and therefore, non-binding, “According to Cote d’Ivoire’s civil code, a civil settlement cannot prevent prosecutions or trial for criminal acts. If the state has the political will to do it, there is nothing that prevents the state from prosecuting Trafigura and its leaders.” Towards the end of 2008, Ivorian government lawyer, Christophe Koussougro Sery, announced that the state could pursue Trafigura on criminal charges of poisoning Ivorians, even with the civil settlement.

According to Marieta Harjono, a Netherlands-based anti-toxic waste lobbyist with the environmental campaign group Greenpeace, the captain of Probo Koala, Trafigura, and the Amsterdam port and harbour storage authorities will answer in a criminal case against Trafigura expected to take place in the Netherlands in late 2009, for not treating the waste before it continued on to Abidjan. In all, the multi-billion dollar company would have only paid $20 000 for disposing of the waste in Africa where human life is obviously not of great value, instead of $700 000 to make the waste harmless.

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