Pouring oil on troubled waters

The Guardian newspaper has evidence of a cover-up by the British oil trader, Trafigura, of a massive pollution disaster in Côte d’Ivoire three years ago.

Internal emails show that Trafigura, which announced last week an offer to pay compensation to 31000 African victims, knew that its waste dumped in Côte d’Ivoire was so toxic that it was banned in Europe.

Thousands of Ivorians besieged local hospitals in 2006 and a number died after the dumping of hundreds of tons of toxic oil waste around the country’s capital, Abidjan. Official local autopsy reports on 12 alleged victims appeared to show fatal levels of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulphide, one of the waste’s lethal byproducts.

Trafigura has publicly insisted for three years that its waste was routine and harmless. Until now it has denied compensation claims and its lawyers have repeatedly threatened anyone worldwide who sought to contradict its version.

But dozens of damning internal Trafigura emails reveal how traders were told in advance that their planned chemical operation, a cheap, dirty process called “caustic washing”, generated dangerous wastes widely outlawed in the West.
The documents reveal that the London-based traders hoped to make profits of $7-million a time by buying up what they called “bloody cheap” cargoes of sulphur-contaminated Mexican petrol. They decided to try to process the fuel on board a tanker anchored offshore, creating toxic waste they called “slops”.

One trader wrote on March 10 2006: “I don’t know how we dispose of the slops and I don’t imply we would dump them, but for sure, there must be some way to pay someone to take them.”

The resulting black, stinking, slurry was dumped around landfills in Abidjan after Trafigura paid an unqualified local man to take it away in tanker trucks at a cheap rate.

Trafigura’s libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, recently demanded the Guardian delete published articles, saying it was false to say Trafigura’s waste had been dumped cheaply and could have caused deaths and serious injuries. The Dutch paper, Volkskrant, and Norwegian TV said last week that they had been threatened with gagging actions.

Trafigura also launched a libel action against the BBC’s Newsnight, complaining it had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, disfigurement and miscarriages, and had “suffered serious damage to their reputation”.

Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, a United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur, criticised Trafigura for potentially ­“stifling independent reporting and public criticism” in a report the oil trader tried - and failed - to prevent being published in Geneva this week.

He wrote: “According to official estimates, there were 15 deaths, 69 persons hospitalised and more than 108000 medical consultations — there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping.”

Trafigura’s lobbyists, Bell Pottinger, claimed to be “appalled” by the report, saying it was “premature” and “inaccurate”.

Last week Greenpeace launched a legal action in Amsterdam calling for the oil firm to be prosecuted there for homicide or grievous bodily harm.

Trafigura said it “utterly rejected” claims of a cover-up. “Every statement that has been made — has been made in good faith.” The firm said the autopsy reports were unreliable and that hydrogen sulphide in the waste was only there in “potential” form. It had never actually been released.

It said the emails contained “crude and distasteful” language, but had been taken “out of context” and should “not be taken literally”.

It repeated denials that the slops could have caused death or serious injury and were extremely toxic. It denied lying about the composition of the slops.

A sudden public announcement about the settlement offer in the compensation case followed legal attempts last week to prevent publication of Trafigura documents. The compensation deal is likely to be confirmed imminently, according to Martyn Day of the British law firm Leigh Day, which is seeking damages of £100-million (R1.2-billion).

Trafigura said the deal - for an undisclosed amount - was likely to be acceptable to most, if not all, of the claimants. It was based on an acceptance that the company had no liability for the most serious deaths and injuries alleged in the dumping scandal.

Trafigura said it is the world’s third-biggest private oil trader, declaring a $440-million profit last year. Its 200 traders are reported to receive annual bonuses of up to $1-million each.—

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