Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Trafigura toxic waste scandal

A Dutch cleanup team deal with toxic waste in Abidjan.
Trafigura are a Dutch oil trading firm and one of the world's biggest independent oil traders. The company has been involved in numerous scandals including UN sanctions busting in Iraq during the Oil for Food Programme and more famously the Abidjan toxic waste dumping scandal.

The toxic waste dumping incident began in 2002 when Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex began to accumulate significant quantities of coker gasoline, a poor quality product which contained large amounts of sulfur and silica. By 2006 Pemex had run out of storage capacity and sold the coker gasoline to Trafigura.

In early 2006, Pemex trucked the coker gasoline to Brownsville, Texas, where Trafigura loaded it aboard the Panamanian registered Probo Koala tanker, which was owned by Greek shipping company Prime Marine Management Inc. and chartered by Trafigura.

Trafigura decided to strip the sulfurous products out of the coker gasoline to produce naphtha, which could then be sold. Instead of paying a refinery to do the work, Trafigura used an obsolete process on board the ship called "caustic washing", in which the coker was treated with caustic soda. The process worked, and the resulting naphtha was resold for a reported profit of $19 million. The waste resulting from this kind of caustic washing typically includes highly dangerous substances such as sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphide and phenols.

The Probo Koala tried to offload the waste in Amsterdam, but when the contractors discovered the toxicity of the cargo they quoted €500,000 to dispose of it. The toxic waste was then pumped back onto the ship and transported out of the Netherlands. The company were eventually fined €1 million for the illegal transportation of toxic waste into and out of the Netherlands.

The Probo Koala then travelled to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast (a country with no toxic waste disposal facilities) where the toxic waste was offloaded for a fee of just €18,500. Over the following weeks the toxic waste was dumped at landfill sites, at roadsides and on open ground in poor neighbourhoods. An official analysis of samples of the waste carried by the Probo Koala indicated that it contained around two British tonnes of the highly toxic substance hydrogen sulphide. More than 30,000 people from Ivory Coast claimed they were affected by the ­toxic waste and eventually brought Britain's biggest-ever group lawsuit against the company.

Trafigura, originally issued statements in 2006 denying the tanker was carrying toxic waste claiming instead that the ship only contained routine "slops", the dirty water from washing out the fuel tank. Executives of the company repeatedly denied that the waste contained any hydrogen sulphide and the company hired famous libel lawyers Carter-Ruck to stifle any media reporting of the incident.

Trafigura eventually paid the government of the Ivory Coast £100 million to cover the clean-up costs but as part of the deal the company demanded and received immunity from prosecution, however prosecutions against the local Ivorian subcontractors that dumped the waste continued, with one of them receiving a sentence of 20 years.

Trafigura spent the next few years obtaining numerous restrictive legal injunctions and suing media sources that dared to cover the case (BBC, The Guardian & The Independent) forcing them to take down numerous articles from their websites. The company were even accused of using a super-injunction in an attempt to gag the UK Parliament. In September 2009 the Guardian revealed that Trafigura employees knew about the toxic nature of the cargo, publishing internal emails that said "this operation is no longer allowed in the European Union, the United States and Singapore" and that it is "banned in most countries due to the 'hazardous nature of the waste" In the wake of these revelations the company (despite their previous litigiousness and protestations of innocence) quickly agreed to pay $46 million in compensation to their Ivorian victims.

It seems that in order to save around €480,000 in disposal fees somebody at the company decided to remove the toxic waste from the Netherlands and transport it to a country without proper waste disposal facilities where it could be dumped, a decision that eventually ended up costing over €200 million in clean-up costs, fines and compensation. No Trafigura employees have ever been convicted in relation to the Abidjan toxic waste dumping incident.

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