Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Trafigura Affair

‘The biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century’: BBC

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LONDON, September 20 Reuters reported on the weekend that the International commodities trader Trafigura has reached a ‘settlement’ with thousands of people in Ivory Coast who fell ill from toxic waste dumped around Abidjan in 2006 . The settlement was reached a week before a class action suit was to be heard in London against the commodities giant that is one of the biggest in the world. Although the Netherlands based firm has put on a brave face on the proceedings, saying, oddly, that the result had vindicated their stand, observers say that that this incident demonstrates once again how Western countries and companies use poor developing countries as dumping grounds for dangerous hazardous material with impunity. They point out that nobody seems to have learnt from the backlash of similar culpable behaviour in Somalia: piracy.

Just four days ago, IHS Global Insight had disclosed the existence of a UN report that damned Trafigura, with the UN’s Okechukwu Ibeanu reportedly saying that there was corroborating evidence linking the reported deaths and ill health to the dumped waste from the Panamanian registered and Greek owned ship, the Probo Koala, in 2006. Ibeanu said that there were areas around Abidjan that had still not been decontaminated.

In a report that prompted threats of libel action from Trafigura, the BBC said that its investigations revealed that the company bought cheap dirty heavy oil with a high sulphur content, chartered the Probo Koala from Greek owners and stationed it as a ‘do it yourself refinery’ off Gibraltar. The idea: sell the ‘refined’ oil at a massive profit. However and quite obviously, the adding of caustic soda and a catalyst to the oil produced toxic sludge. They tried to dispose this in the company’s ‘home port’ of Amsterdam (were officials involved there, we wonder?) as normal ship’s waste. The Amsterdam authorities found foul fumes emanating from the Probo Koala and called in emergency services. Tests found that the waste was highly toxic, and the authorities told Trafigura that it would cost half a million Euros to dispose of safely. Very suspiciously, the company was then allowed to pump the waste back on the ‘Koala’ and leave the port. We know where the ship, and the waste, ended up.

Trafigura, which has extensive operations in the UK, then hired a contractor to ‘dispose of slops’ from the Probo Koala at Abidjan. The company had described the slops as ‘residues from gasoline mixed with caustic washings’. Later events proved this claim spurious: a Dutch inquiry, news reports, and the government of Côte d'Ivoire claimed the substance was more than 500 tones of a mixture of fuel, caustic soda, and hydrogen sulphide transported from Europe as toxic waste. The dumping of the waste caused a health crisis in Ivory Coast. In August 2006, the waste was found to have been dumped by a local contractor in up to 12 sites around Abidjan. The gas emitted by the waste caused 17 deaths; another 30,000 or so people fell sick, with symptoms that ranged from mild headaches to vomiting to severe burns of skin and lungs. Women miscarried. A year later, some newborn children were dying because of what a doctor said was “acute glycaemia caused by the toxic wastes". Freshwater supplies and fish in entire areas were found contaminated; in one village, every resident fell ill in a population of 2000. In all, almost 100,000 Ivorians sought medical attention after the manmade disaster.

Trafigura denied any wrongdoing, claiming that only small amounts of hydrogen sulfide was present in the waste and that it did not know, in any case, how the waste would eventually be disposed. Nevertheless, the company paid US$198m in 2007 for cleanup costs to the Government of the Ivory Coast, who pledged not to prosecute the company. This, however, was after two Trafigura executives visiting the country after the incident were arrested and put in jail. Specialists from the United Nations, France and the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment were sent to Abidjan to investigate the dumping.

Inevitably, there was political fallout as well. The transitional Ivory Coast government of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny resigned in the aftermath. A Dutch government report said that the waste actually contained two tonnes of the deadly hydrogen sulphide. In December 2006, an independent inquiry conducted by Amsterdam said that the city had been negligent when they allowed Trafigura to take waste back on board the Probo Koala in Amsterdam in July. Just negligent?

Trafigura has, over the three years since the incident, attacked the mainly European press that has been reporting the scandal, forcing an apology from the Times and demanding that many of the others retract their stories. Trafigura threatened to sue the BBC for libel for its reporting of the scandal in its ‘Newsnight’ programme in May this year. Newsnight consulted a leading toxicologist, John Hoskins from the Royal Society of Chemistry on the affair, who said that the waste on the Koala would ‘bring a major city to its knees’. The BBC said that “the waste included tons of phenols which can cause death by contact, tons of hydrogen sulphide, lethal if inhaled in high concentrations, and vast quantities of corrosive caustic soda and mercaptans which John Hoskins described as ‘the most odorous compounds ever produced’.

Many feel that rampant environmental vandalism and the behaviour of developed countries and companies towards environmental issues in developing countries is a huge ongoing problem. Equally disturbing for us is the fact that the Trafigura affair has, inevitably within it, rogue elements from the shipping industry as well.



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