The Probo Koala: Toxic crime scene. Who is responsible for this disaster?
Before the Abidjan dumping
The story of the Trafigura scandal starts with a chemical process known as caustic washing. It consists of mixing low quality crude oil with sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda) to purify the oil. This leaves an extremely toxic byproduct - so toxic that this process is actually banned in several countries because it's so hard to deal with it. It is a lot more expensive to purify oil through "normal" refining processes.
Trafigura used this process on board the ship Probo Koala on oil they bought from a Mexican company, Pemex International. Instead of refining the oil normally, Trafigura figured it could make a major profit by using caustic washing. Trafigura's own emails say "This operation is no longer allowed in the European Union, the United States and Singapore" it is "banned in most countries due to the "hazardous nature of the waste". The problem appeared when the company started to realise it was difficult to deal with the left over waste present in the slop tanks.
Trafigura first tried to have it treated in the Amsterdam harbour, where it wastold proper facilities only existed in the Rotterdam harbour. But the price tag was too high, and a new solution was sought. Nigeria was considered when the Probo Koala was in Lagos, but rejected. Instead, it turned to a contractor in Ivory Coast. This contractor was paid only 35 dollar, around 20 euro/m3 to take care of the waste while process costs in The Netherlands would have cost around 1000 euro/m3. But Trafigura officials weren't too concerned as to the reason for such a difference in the price tag. They knew they were assured mighty profits from the operation, and the toxic waste was finally taken off their hands.
A series of emails between the key players from the previous months released by Greenpeace, the BBC and some other media and posted on the independent website Wikileaks shows that Trafigura knew very well the product was highly toxic, and it was in a hurry to be rid of it. What happened in Abidjan is a tragedy. The waste was spread around the city, and the toxic fumes it emitted ended up exposing ten thousands of people. According to official reports from Ivory Coast, 15 deaths were reported and the city's hospitals were overloaded. Trafigura denies that serious injuries or death could have been caused by the dumping of the waste in Abidjan.It is a sad fact that toxic waste still ends up in developing countries where people and the environment are least protected, simply because this is cheaper than having the waste processed in say, the Netherlands. After hazardous waste was dumped too often in poor countries in the eighties, this was made illegal under international law by the Basel Convention, the Ban Amendment and the EU Waste Shipment Regulation.
Trafigura's role in the dumping wasn't clear for a few weeks after the dumping. The Probo Koala was allowed to leave Ivory Coast without questions, and if it hadn't been blocked by Greenpeace after arriving in Estonia a few weeks later, it is not clear if it would have been stopped at all.
Trafigura commissioned its own report regarding the dumping - which became known later on as the Minton Report. The preliminary results were damning. The waste was as toxic as it gets. This report was never revealed by Trafigura, but leaked three years later. Minton later refuted his earlier damning conclusions, in a statement published on Trafigura's website.
The role of Trafigura started to emerge. In the Netherlands, the government started prosecuting Trafigura for lying regarding the contents of the waste they had generated and for illegal export of hazardous waste under European law. Ivory Coast authorities detained the head of Trafigura, Claude Dauphin, and other Trafigura employees. In the UK, the BBC program Newsnight started following the case closely, despite a storm of libel lawsuits threats hitting the UK media.
In 2007, Trafigura paid $160 million to the Ivory Coast government in return for the assurance that Ivory Coast would drop all its cases against Trafigura and its employees and would not start any new litigation. The money paid was meant to clean up the waste that was still dumped around Abidjan and to compensate victims. In October 2008 criminal proceedings took place in Abidjan, but, as was agreed to in the settlement, not against Trafigura employees. Instead, two Africans - an employee of the shipping agent WAIBS and the owner of the company Tommy that Trafigura had hired to dump the waste - were convicted and sentenced to jail for 5 and 20 years.
In the UK, Trafigura started to sue different media outlets. It went as far as issuing a libel lawsuit against the lawyers suing Trafigura on behalf of the victims, and attempting to prevent the newspaper The Guardian from reporting on a question that had been asked in Parliament.
In the UK, an out-of-court settlement was reached through which Trafigura compensated victims in exchange for the charges to be dropped. In return for $50 million for their clients and several tens of millions for their own legal costs Leigh Day (the law firm representing around 30,000 victims) agreed to sign a joint agreement most probably dictated by Trafigura which claimed that the waste could not have caused death and serious injury and Trafigura wasn't responsible in any way.
In 2012, following 3 years of investigations, Greenpeace and Amnesty International released a report entitled 'The Toxic Truth'. The investigation uncovered the central reason for the tragedy that unfolded in Abidjan: in the absence of effective law enforcement, one company acted to secure corporate profit without regard for the human and environmental costs. That company was Trafigura.
Although Trafigura was convicted in a Dutch court of illegally exporting the waste from the Netherlands, the company was given immunity from prosecution in Côte d'Ivoire. Trafigura claims the dumping and its aftermath were not its fault. The investigation undertaken by Amnesty International and Greenpeace concluded that Trafigura's claim lacked credibility.
Just as the Probo Koala sailed around the seas of Europe and West Africa with its toxic cargo, Trafigura has sailed around the law, evading international law and exploiting jurisdictional uncertainties.
The nightmare inflicted on the people of Abidjan still haunts many people today. The persistent failures – to hold the company fully to account, to disclose information and to ensure compensation reaches all those who are entitled to it – mean that the toxic waste dumping at Abidjan is not only a crime committed back in 2006 but an ongoing travesty of justice today.