Trafigura's Toxic History in Africa

Scandalised Oil Corporation Set to Work in Africa

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Feature story - November 17, 2010
Trafigura, a commodities multinational with a history of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, is set to begin operations in Southern Africa. Below is the story of their involvement in dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, leading up to a fine of €1m by a Dutch court earlier in the year.

Trafigura is a multinational which specialises in trading raw materials, and oil in particular. It is sometimes referred to as "the largest multinational you've never heard of".


Trafigura bought oil from a Mexican Company. To save money the company then  decided to purify the oil using a chemical process called caustic washing: a process which leaves an extremely toxic byproduct.

Trafigura was aware of this fact, but went ahead nonetheless.

To treat the resulting waste, Trafigura first went to the Netherlands, but found that it was too expensive there, so a contractor in the Ivory Coast was approached. For only $35/m3 (compared to €1000/m3 in the Netherlands) Trafigura had the waste taken off its hands.

The result was tragic: waste was spread around the city, and tens of thousands of people were exposed to the toxic fumes.

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.

In July 2010, Trafigura was fined €1m by a Dutch court, in a case initiated by Greenpeace. The court convicted the oil trader of illegally exporting waste to Ivory Coast and concealing its hazardous nature.

Trafigura Headquarters in Amsterdam

Doumbia Siaka, Amado Bakayoko, and Greenpeace campaigner Marietta Harjono, outside the headquarters of Trafigura head office in Amsterdam. Siaka and Bakayoko were hired as drivers in 2006 by Trafigura to dispose of toxic waste from the ship Probo Koala in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan. They were two of the nine truck drivers who dumped the waste in many different sites in and around the city. Doumbia and Amado went twice to the Amsterdam headquarters of Trafigura to demand apologies from the company for not disclosing the toxic nature of the waste that they were asked to dispose of. Both times they were told that the management of Trafigura could and would not hear their story. 09/07/2010

The Abidjan dumping

Caustic Washing

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 caustic washing to 'clean' oil they bought from a Mexican company, Pemex International. Trafigura figured it could make a major profit by using caustic washing instead of the "normal" refining process.

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 problems began when Trafihura had to deal with the left over waste.

Trafigura first tried to have it treated in the Netherlands. But the price tag was too high, and a new solution was sought. So it turned to a contractor in Ivory Coast. This contractor was paid only $35/m3, while the same processing costs in The Netherlands would have been 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.

The Aftermath

Trafigura's role in the dumping wasn't clear for a few weeks after the dumping.

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.

In the Netherlands, the government started prosecuting Trafigura for lying about 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.

Recent developments

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, Leigh Day (the law firm representing around 30,000 victims) signed a joint agreement 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 July 2010, Trafigura was fined €1m by a Dutch court, in a case initiated by Greenpeace. The court convicted the oil trader of illegally exporting waste to Ivory Coast and concealing its hazardous nature.

Greenpeace in the Netherlands also lodged a complaint with the Advertising Code Authority. In advertisements, Trafigura suggested that the High Court in London ruled that the toxic waste from the Probo Koala could not cause any fatal or otherwise serious health conditions. This is a misrepresentation, as no such judgement has been passed in Great Britain. Furthermore, neither the High Court nor any UK judge has ever made such a statement. Using the advertisements, Trafigura attempted to falsely create the impression that a judgement had been made in favour of the company.

It is essential for everyone involved in this tragedy to see the truth established in court. Trafigura has recognised they produced the waste, brought it to Ivory Coast and gave it to an incompetent company. It cannot wash its hands clean of this by paying off the president of Ivory Coast and coming to an out of court settlement.

Greenpeace finds it of major importance that the company is brought to trial for the toxic disaster.