Britain urged to investigate Trafigura scandal

Associated Press
ADDS ATTRIBUTION TO IVORIAN AUTHORITIES FILE In this Sept. 17, 2006 file photo, waste removal experts work to remove hazardous black sludge from a garbage dump in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A new report published Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 is calling on British authorities to investigate multinational oil trader Trafigura over a 2006 toxic waste dumping scandal that Ivorian authorities say killed at least 15 people and affected tens of thousands more in Ivory Coast's commercial capital of Abidjan.(AP Photo, File)
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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — The British government is urged by Amnesty International and Greenpeace to investigate possible criminal charges against the multinational firm Trafigura, over the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast that is blamed for several deaths and sickening thousands.

The 2006 waste disposal in Abidjan has come here to represent the arrogance of the western world toward the African continent.

A three-year-long investigation by Amnesty International and Greenpeace published Tuesday points to "clear evidence that at least part of the decision-making process on export of the waste from Europe and delivery to Abidjan emanated from London," making U.K. prosecutions feasible.

The report calls for the United Kingdom to undertake criminal investigations against Trafigura. It also urges Ivory Coast to review a 2007 decision that gave Trafigura immunity from prosecution on Ivorian soil, and to probe how compensation from an out-of-court settlement in the U.K. was allowed to be misappropriated.

Britain's government responded Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate for the U.K. to launch an investigation because the vessel involved was not registered in the U.K. and the waste wasn't loaded in or originating from the U.K.

"We condemn incidents such as occurred in Abidjan where toxic waste was dumped, with such devastating effects on human life and the environment," a spokesman from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said. "Controls are in place in the UK to help prevent such incidents occurring, including controls on ships waste and on the import and export of hazardous waste."

More than 100,000 people sought medical treatment in the first five months after the waste was dumped in Abidjan in 2006, according to Ivorian authorities. A national commission of inquiry reported 15 deaths, though an Ivorian court put that number at 17. Trafigura has disputed those figures, saying the waste could only have caused "low level flulike symptoms and anxiety."

The new report says the dead included a 6-month-old baby and an inmate at Abidjan's main prison said to be 12 or 13 years old. Waste had been dumped just a few meters from the prison's juvenile block.

Six years ago on a morning burned into the collective memory of this West African nation, Abidjan residents awoke to a smell that was a mixture of rotten eggs and gasoline fumes.

Overnight on Aug. 20, 2006, toxic waste from the ship Probo Koala had been dumped in at least 18 locations throughout the city, including near houses, schools and crops.

Before long, residents reported symptoms including nausea, respiratory problems and burning skin, and the lack of information on what was causing the smell and symptoms created panic.

The new report describes how Trafigura purchased large amounts of an unrefined gasoline called coker naphtha, then subjected it to a refining process known as "caustic washing," which is known to create hazardous waste. The caustic washing was initially carried out on land in the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia, but Tunisian authorities suspended the process in April 2006 after workers became ill, and the rest of the process was carried out at sea, according to the report.

The multinational attempted to offload the waste in Gibraltar, Malta, France and Italy without success, the report says. An agreement was then reached with a Dutch company to offload the waste in Amsterdam, but the company raised its price after tests showed the waste would require more specialized treatment than had originally been expected. After failing to offload the waste in Lagos, Nigeria, a Trafigura subsidiary arranged for it to be offloaded in Abidjan in August by Compagnie Tommy, a firm that had received its operational license the previous month.

Fabrice Gbangbo, 37, who lives near the open-air Akouedo dumpsite, the initial offloading point for the waste, described to the AP how he woke up the morning after the waste had been deposited to see large blisters forming on his skin.

"Everybody was panicking here," he said. "No one knew where the smell was coming from."

Although the case has received much attention, the new report contends that Trafigura's role in the dumping "has never been subject to a full court proceeding." It also says Trafigura has blocked attempts to obtain full information about the nature of the waste.

For example, Gbangbo said that without this information, residents of his village would never know if they were completely safe. "I don't know if I'm still affected because we never had a good medical analysis," he said. "We think we are OK, but maybe we're suffering inside. I don't know."

Responding to the report in a letter addressed to Amnesty Africa Director Audrey Gaughran, Trafigura said the report contains "significant inaccuracies and misrepresentations," but does not specify them.

"The report oversimplifies difficult legal issues, analyzes them based on ill-founded assumptions and draws selective conclusions which do not adequately reflect the complexity of the situation of the legal processes," reads the letter, signed by Eric de Turckheim, a member of Trafigura's supervisory board.

"Courts in five jurisdictions have reviewed different aspects of the incident, and decisions and settlements have been made. It is simply wrong to suggest that the issues have not had the right judicial scrutiny."

Trafigura agreed in February 2007 to pay roughly $200 million to Ivory Coast for compensation and clean-up. This was the same settlement that gave Trafigura immunity from prosecution in the country. However, it is unclear whether all victims deemed eligible by the government for compensation had received any money, said Amnesty's Gaughran, who added that the government's list of victims was likely incomplete.

An additional $45 million in compensation was paid by Trafigura as part of a 2009 settlement in a case brought in the U.K. by 30,000 victims, but the distribution process was corrupted when an organization falsely claiming to represent victims effectively robbed some 6,000 victims of the money they were due to receive.

Ivory Coast's Minister for African Integration Adama Bictogo resigned in May over his alleged role in the scandal, though a prosecutor said in July that charges would not be brought against him.

The letter from Trafigura says the apparent misappropriation of compensation payments was "regrettable," but that this was "entirely outside our control."

Gaughran said it was important for Ivory Coast to review past problems with compensation and to continue to distribute money to victims who were not able to access previous compensation schemes.

One of the main lessons of the case, she added, was how difficult it was to ensure accountability for actions taken in multiple countries, but she said it was important that Trafigura be held responsible. "We can't end up in the position that just because three or four countries are involved that somehow nobody can get to grips with the problem," she said.

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