Toxic shame: Thousands injured in African city

Synopsis of an Article removed from Independent Newspaper website after injunction by British oil trading giant, Trafigura.

A British oil trading giant has agreed to a multimillion-pound payout to settle a huge damages claim from thousands of Ivory Coast citizens who fell ill from tonnes of toxic waste dumped illegally around the principal city of Abidjan in one of the worst pollution incidents in decades.

Under the deal, thousands of Ivorians who suffered short-term illnesses, including vomiting, diarrhoea and breathing difficulties, receive a payout understood to be set at several hundred pounds. But the settlement, which is likely to be confirmed by the end of this month, will mean that claims of more serious injuries caused by the waste – including miscarriages, still births and birth defects – will now not be tested in the £100m court claim, which had been scheduled to start in London’s High Court next month.  Trafigura is a privately-owned multinational which has 1,900 staff working in 42 offices around the world, last year claimed a turnover of $73bn (£44bn). The figure is double the entire GDP of Ivory Coast, where half the population of 21 million live on less than a dollar a day.


Trafigura, a London-based company which bills itself as one of the world’s largest oil traders, said it was in talks to reach a "global settlement" to the claim by 30,000 people from Ivory Coast, who brought Britain’s largest-ever lawsuit after contaminated sludge from a tanker ship was fly-tipped under cover of darkness in August 2006. The incident caused at least 100,000 residents from the west African country’s most populous city, Abidjan, to flood into hospitals and clinics complaining of breathing difficulties and sickness. Investigations by the Ivorian authorities suggestedthat the deaths of at least 10 people were linked to the waste. Trafigura has always insisted the foul-smelling slurry, dumped without its knowledge by a sub-contractor, could not have caused serious injury or illness. At the heart of the dumping incident, which at times seemed to owe more to the novels of John Grisham than 21st-century commerce, lies an oil deal spanning three continents.

Internal Trafigura emails, obtained by Greenpeace, show that Trafigura struck a series of bargains on the international markets in 2005 and early 2006 to buy cheap and dirty petroleum, called coker gasoline, which the company believed could then be cleaned up at profit of £4m per cargo.  Rather than send the oil to a refinery, Trafigura used the Probo Koala, a Panamanian tanker chartered by the company since 2004, as a floating processing plant while it was anchored off Gibraltar. Using an ad hoc process of adding caustic soda and a catalyst to the coker gasoline, the oil was "cleaned" to produce a sellable fuel and a toxic sludge which sank to the bottom of the ship’s tanks. The precise composition of the waste is strongly disputed, with Trafigura vigorously denying it contained high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide, a potentially lethal poisonous gas. The presence of mercaptan, a sulphurous chemical that is widely recognised as the most foul-smelling substance known to man, was confirmed. Problems began for Trafigura when it needed to dispose of the slurry.

When the Probo Koala arrived in Amsterdam in July 2006 and tried to unload the contaminated slops, allegedly described as "watery cleaning liquids", the process caused a health alert and Trafigura was informed the cost of dealing with its by-product would rise from £17 per cubic metre to £800. Rather than pay the estimated bill of £500,000, Trafigura ordered the waste to be pumped back on to the Probo Koala and the vessel travelled to west Africa. The first the four million inhabitants of Abidjan knew of their role in Trafigura’s project was after darkness on 19 August 2006. A fleet of 12 trucks hired by a local waste contractor, Compagnie Tommy, which had only received its operating licence weeks earlier, offloaded the sulphurous sludge from the cargo vessel and deposited the waste at 18 locations around the sprawling, over-crowded city. Hospital records showed that within hours thousands of patients were treated for complaints including nausea, breathlessness, headaches, skin reactions and a range of ear, nose, throat and pulmonary problems.

The bitterly contested legal action has seen Trafigura repeatedly deploy one of Britain’s most aggressive firms of lawyers, Carter Ruck, to prevent reporting on the case by media outlets including the BBC. The firm also obtained  a court super-injunction preventing reporting of a question asked in Parliament, as well as preventing reporting of the existence of the injunction itself. More recently Carter-Ruck, Trafigura’s lawyers, have tried to prevent a parliamentary debate, on the incident referred to in the injunction, from taking place. 

Their intention was to prevent any mention or publication of the Minton Report, which examines the nature and hazards posed by the toxic waste. This damning report has since appeared on a number of web sites, including Wikileaks . Readers can help the victims and the press undermine this unconscionable gag order, by spreading the URL which Wikileaks have made available as a downloadable PDF file from http://88.80.16.63/leak/waterson-toxicwaste-ivorycoast-é2009.pdf

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About barrywhit

I am a retired engineer and I live in darkest Lincolnshire, UK. I am an author and when I retired, published a book in 2004 and another one in April 2008. I am now also a retired author!! If you have ever written a book you will understand what I mean. I am interested in science, aviation, philosophy, spirituality , politics, progressive rock painting (art not rooms) and films. I prefer wide open spaces to city centres. Lincolnshire has the biggest skies in the country and I love it. I am a left wing, liberal Anglican, I read The Guardian and Observer. I am a Republican at heart and an armchair communist!
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