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Trafigura on trial over Ivory Coast waste

The Switzerland-based oil and metals trading company, an employee and a tanker-captain, together with Amsterdam Port Services (APS) and the city of Amsterdam, are charged with offences relating to the export of toxic waste from the Netherlands

TRAFIGURA went on trial in Amsterdam last month over events leading up to the dumping of waste from an oil process, in Ivory Coast, in August 2006.

The case is the first criminal trial faced by Trafigura since the dumping, which is alleged to have caused health problems to over 30,000 people in Abidjan. Trafigura has paid compensation to the claimants and to the Ivory Coast government, but has not admitted liability.

The waste was sulphurous residue from the tanks of a ship, the Probo Koala, which Trafigura had chartered to take a cargo of high-sulphur gasoline from Mexico to Nigeria. The firm desulphurised the gasoline in the ship's tanks using sodium hydroxide and had the vessel put in to Amsterdam to unload the sludge from the process. However, APS found the waste contained much more sulphur than it had expected and asked for a 20-fold increase in the price for handling it.

Trafigura declined to pay and had the waste re-loaded into the Probo Koala, which sailed to Nigeria to deliver the gasoline. According to Trafigura, the firm was recommended to have the waste disposed of by a contractor called Compagnie Tommy in Ivory Coast – but Compagnie Tommy dumped the untreated material at a number of waste sites around the capital.

Accounts of the consequences differ. But according to an agreed joint statement by Trafigura and the London lawyers acting for the claimants, Leigh Day, made after a libel action by Trafigura and endorsed by the UK's High Court, the waste "could at worst have caused a range of short-term, low-level, flu-like symptoms and anxiety".

An investigation by the Netherlands' NRC Handelsblad newspaper, cited by Trafigura, blames Ivory Coast's radio and press for speculating that the sulphurous smell in the capital could be radioactive or carcinogenic. There was widespread public alarm, hospitals were besieged, and a government call for victims to register for compensation produced a vast number of claimants.

One of Trafigura's founders, former oil-trader Eric de Turckheim, says the company has been subject to "trial by media", despite comments made by the High Court judge that "fully endorse Trafigura's consistent position throughout this process and the entirely proper way we have conducted ourselves at all times". The firm lays the blame for the incident on Compagnie Tommy, the owner of which was given a 20-year prison sentence in Ivory Coast.

Trafigura has certainly received a bad press. Just after the incident, it commissioned an outline report into the range of possible health effects of the sludge from a UK firm of consultants, which was leaked to the press and reported luridly. Trafigura took out a "super-injunction", preventing reporting and blocking mentions of the injunction's existence, but soon had to lift it when the report became widely available on the internet. In December, Trafigura won a libel action against the BBC.

Some questions are yet to be answered, however. It is not yet clear what checks the firm carried out to ensure that Compagnie Tommy had proper facilities to process the sulphurous waste. Desulphurising gasoline using sodium hydroxide is not a recognised refinery process.

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