Saturday, July 04, 2009
A British-based firm insisted for years that its tanker was not to blame for poisoning thousands in West Africa
A British-based firm insisted for years that its tanker was not to blame for poisoning thousands in West Africa. Now proof of its lethal cargo has emerged.
By DAVID LEIGH and AFUA HIRSCH
ON a July day in 2006, workers at the port in Amsterdam began their usual task of removing "slop" from a ship that had sailed to the Netherlands from Algeciras in Spain. As they pumped wastefrom the Probo Koala- a vessel chartered to the British-based oil trading company
Trafigura - they were expecting the usual mix of water and oil left over from the tank after it had been washed down with water.
But the workers, employed by Dutch company Amsterdam Port Services (APS), noticed the waste was different from the ordinary material they were used to dealing with. Pitch black in colour, it gave off such a vile smell that some of the workers became sick, attracting the attention of the environmental authorities.
APS refused to continue disposing of the pungent waste unless its payment was increased. Refusing to pay the extra, Trafigura decided to pump the material back on board the ship. The Probo Koala then set sail again, carrying its foul-smelling cargo to West Africa. As the ship made its way to the Ivorian port of Abidjan, a company with no previous expe- rience in waste removal obtained the licence to handle the highly toxic material - for a sum 20 times less than the amount demanded by APS in Amsterdam.
The Probo Koala docked in Abidjan on Aug 19, 2006. In darkness at least 12 hired lorries began carrying loads from the ship's 400 tonnes of waste to as many as 18 sites around the city. As the sludge was emptied out into roads and sewers, crowds starting to form, protesting at the stench, forcing truck drivers to abandon their work. Over the following
weeks, thousands of residents in Abidjan found themselves choking and coughing, some vomiting. At least 10 are said to have died from sickness.
The episode is now the centre of a civil suit being played out at the high court in London. Of the 100,000 Ivorians said to have fallen sick, 30,000 are suing the oil trading firm Trafigura in Britain. Company bosses repeatedly insisted at the time the Probo Koala had only routinely discharged ordinary slops.
Yet three years on, after a series of legal developments, lawyers for the victims say they are now able to paint a completely different picture of what really happened. Documents have emerged saying that about two tonnes of highly poisonous hydrogen sulphide was indeed present in a sample of what was a potentially lethal sulphur and caustic soda cocktail.
Asked to comment about the potential toxicity of such a mix, John Hoskins, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, told BBC: "If you dropped this in Trafalgar Square, you would have people being sick for several miles around and that would involve millions of people. It's not very hard to imagine that if a pregnant woman was poisoned her body reacts by aborting the foetus. There will be long-term effects. These things are chronically damaging and, once you've damaged your lungs, kidneys, that damage will not recover."
It is alleged that what Trafigura was really doing was very far from routine: that the company was trying to transform consignments of cheap and dirty petroleum, heavily contaminated with sulphur, into something more profitable. Trafigura employees were trying to remove sulphur from the so-called "coker gasoline", it is claimed, by adding highly-corrosive caustic soda and a catalyst. This process leaves the improved petroleum in a top layer and a toxic sludge underneath.
Lawyer Martyn Day, acting for the claimants, says the oil traders first tried the chemical process on land in early 2006 at the Tunisian port of La Skirra. "The resulting waste and toxic gases caused significant health problems leading to the port authorities banning them," he said. Day says the firm next tried the "highly unusual and dangerous step" of carrying out do-it-yourself refining in a tanker at sea off the coast of Gibraltar. They tried to dispose of the resultant toxic waste in Amsterdam and "unsuccessfully attempted to pass it off as ordinary waste".
When they were asked to pay extra by the Dutch disposal firm, Trafigura admits it pumped the waste back on board and subsequently took it down the West African coast where it could be disposed of at a fraction of the cost, hiring a local contractor to take it away.
Day says a final Trafigura attempt to continue its desulphuring operations in Norway, using a different ship, led to a tank explosion "causing a sulphur gas cloud to affect hundreds in the local population".
An analysis of the sample obtained from the Amsterdam authorities shows that, despite all Trafigura's denials, it did contain large quantities of sulphur compounds and poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas. These were by-products of desulphurisation attempts, not ordinary tank washings.
Trafigura director Claude Dauphin found himself temporarily jailed alongside two company executives when he went out to the Ivory Coast in an attempt to handle the durriping crisis.
He was only released when the company paid more than E100mil (RM554mil) to the African government for clean-up costs and individual compensation, although it continued to deny any link between the payment and his release.
A local contractor and a port official were convicted and jailed in Abidjan for their part in the dumping. Trafigura faces possible pros- ecution in Amsterdam for illegally exporting toxic waste. But the company also faces the massive group litigation from Day. The trial is due to open in October in London.
In a significant legal move last year, Trafigura agreed to compensate claimants if they could prove a link between their illness and exposure to the waste, a cause-and-effect relationship which they continue to strenuously deny. The firm said it would only pay up to anyone who could prove to legal standards that the toxic waste directly caused their medical condition.
Day, for the claimants, says this move has the effect of excluding from the courtroom all the history of the voyage of the Probo Koala. He claims that Trafigura has followed up its move by attempts to induce claimants to change their stories.
Witness statements allege that Simon Nurney, a partner in Trafigura"s solicitors, Macfarlanes, interviewed a lead claimant who had been flown business class to a luxury hotel in Morocco, and was later offered money to retract his evidence. The high court has, as a result, banned Trafigura from further contact with witnesses.
In a statement on May 13, Macfarlanes admitted Nurney had met the witness but denied any wrongdoing. "At no time has anyone from Macfarlanes or Trafigura's legal team, our client or their agents acted improperly or offered any inducements whatsoever to any witnesses or claimants."
Trafigura's has claimed that further publicising these allegations would put the lives of their local employees in danger, hence court hearings have been held in secret because of allegations of intimidation.
The privately-owned oil trading group claims to be one of the biggest in the world, with claimed revenues of US$73bil (RM262bil) and undisclosed share ownership. It was set up offshore in 1993.
Trafigura managers worked until then for Marc Rich, the oil trader who became notorious for South African and Iranian sanctionsbusting. Rich was a fugitive from US justice for alleged tax evasion and trading with Iran, but was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. -Guardian Newspaper Service