Wednesday 28 December 2011

Dutch court upholds fine against commodities giant Trafigura for illegally exporting toxic waste to Côte d'Ivoire.

On 23 December 2011 the Amsterdam Court of Appeal upheld a 2010 judgement by a Dutch court to the effect that multinational commodities trading company Trafigura had illegally exported hazardous waste to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire; waste that resulted in a number of deaths (up to 17, depending on the source of information) and tens of thousands of cases of poisoning (again exact figures are unclear, as different sources quote different figures).

The charge relates to a cargo of 400 tonnes of cleaning residue from oil tanks, which left the UK in June 2006 aboard the Greek registered ship Probo Koala; the cargo was shipped to Amsterdam, where it was due to be offloaded and processed by a Dutch company. However on 2 July 2006 the unloading in Amsterdam was cancelled after Trafigura discovered that the cost of processing would be 3000% of what they had originally expected. The ship was then redirected to Abidjan, where the cargo was unloaded and delivered to a local company for processing.

The Probo Koala.

The exact nature of the cargo is not clear, but the sudden increase in processing in Holland implies that the cargo was considerably more toxic than had been originally thought. Trafigura have constantly pointed out that residual waste of this kind is a common byproduct of the oil industry, and that it is commonly processed in a number of centers around the world, including Abidjan. However if an incorrect cleaning chemical had been used at some stage then a far more dangerous end-product would not be surprising. This would explain the higher costs required by the company in Holland, and the subsequent inability of the Ivorian company to handle the waste. The Dutch court accepted evidence from Côte d'Ivoire that the waste was caustic and caused burning to the skin (unsurprising in toxic cleaning residue); though a British court had early accepted that the waste would cause only 'flu-like symptoms' (though since the flu can kill you this isn't a great improvement).

An Ivorian man with burns allegedly caused by contact with waste from the Probo Koala.

Trafigura had already reached pre-trail settlements with the Ivorian government and a group of victims seeking compensation in the UK, by which they agreed to pay €152 million in Côte d'Ivoire and €33 million in the UK, in return for which they were able to avoid the matter coming before a court in either country. Unfortunately the stopover in Amsterdam meant that the shipment was also covered by Dutch law, enabling prosecutors there to bring charges against Trafigura. Since no settlement had been sought in Holland there was no way to prevent the matter coming to court. The Amsterdam Port Authorities were also charged for their part in the affair, but were acquitted. Trafigura were fined €1 million in July 2006, which both parties appealed; Trafigura wishing to have the conviction overturned and the prosecutor seeking to have the fine doubled to €2 million. Since Trafigura had already paid out a total of €185 million to avoid a judgement it is to be assumed that they were more concerned about being ruled liable than they were about the money.

The clean-up operation in Abidjan.

Trafigura also brought legal action against The Guardian newspaper in the UK in 2009, after the paper came into possession of documents relating to the shipment. The company was initially granted an injunction, but the documents then appeared on the Wikileaks website, then were raised in a parliamentary question by Labour MP Paul Farrelly, enabling The Guardian to claim the document was in the public domain, and publish anyway. Trafigura has consistently claimed that The Guardian's coverage of the story has been 'highly misleading' and 'a complete distortion of the facts'.