Saturday, September 19, 2009

Trafigura offers £1,000 each to toxic dumping victims.

Trafigura, an oil trading company, has offered each of the 30,000 claimants against it a mere £1,000 in compensation for the dumping of toxic waste around Abidjan which caused thousands of residents to flock to hospitals.This would cost the company about £30 million in total, which is about 10% of the company's annual profits.

That might sound reasonable, unless you had read the story of just what Trafigura are accused of doing and what effect this event had on the lives of people on the Ivory Coast.

At the heart of the dumping incident, which at times seemed to owe more to the novels of John Grisham than 21st-century commerce, lies an oil deal spanning three continents.

Internal Trafigura emails, obtained by Greenpeace, show that Trafigura struck a series of bargains on the international markets in 2005 and early 2006 to buy cheap and dirty petroleum, called coker gasoline, which the company believed could then be cleaned up at profit of £4m per cargo.

Rather than send the oil to a refinery, Trafigura used the Probo Koala, a Panamanian tanker chartered by the company since 2004, as a floating processing plant while it was anchored off Gibraltar. Using an ad hoc process of adding caustic soda and a catalyst to the coker gasoline, the oil was "cleaned" to produce a sellable fuel and a toxic sludge which sank to the bottom of the ship's tanks.

The precise composition of the waste is strongly disputed, with Trafigura vigorously denying it contained high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide, a potentially lethal poisonous gas. The presence of mercaptan, a sulphurous chemical that is widely recognised as the most foul-smelling substance known to man, was confirmed. Problems began for Trafigura when it needed to dispose of the slurry.

They first attempted to offload this slurry in Amsterdam, by telling the authorities there that it was "watery cleaning liquids". After examining it, the Amsterdam authorities told them that rather than charge the usual £17 per cubic metre to dispose of waste, they would be required to pay £800 per cubic metre. This gives you some idea of the toxicity of the waste we are talking about here.

Trafigura declined to pay the Amsterdam authorities (the bill would have been some £500,000) and set sail for the Ivory Coast.

Once there they entered into a deal with Compagnie Tommy, despite the fact that Compagnie Tommy had told them that it intended to dispose of the sludge at Akouedo, a vast open-air waste site where hundreds of Ivorians earn a living by picking over the rubbish.

The UN have accused Trafigura of not checking whether or not this company had the capability of properly dealing with such waste.

The first the four million inhabitants of Abidjan knew of their role in Trafigura's project was after darkness on 19 August 2006. A fleet of 12 trucks hired by a local waste contractor, Compagnie Tommy, which had only received its operating licence weeks earlier, offloaded the sulphurous sludge from the cargo vessel and deposited the waste at 18 locations around the sprawling, over-crowded city.

Hospital records showed that within hours thousands of patients were treated for complaints including nausea, breathlessness, headaches, skin reactions and a range of ear, nose, throat and pulmonary problems.

A United Nations report yesterday found that "there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping".

The stories of individual misery which this dumping led to are horrendous:
The smell in Abidjan began late at night on 19 August 2006. By morning, what had at first seemed an unpleasant odour became a stench which would leave thousands of some of the world's poorest people in a state of sickness and angry disbelief.

Guy Olou, a science teacher, said: "It smelt like spoilt eggs and also rubber burning. It sticks in your nose; it was unbearable.
I started to cough and after that my nose started to bleed. For three-and-a-half to four months, I was sick. I had to go to hospital. It was terrible, very terrible."

For some, the exposure to the fumes, which contained a sulphur-based compound called mecaptan, the foulest-smelling substance known to man, was linked to horrific outcomes.
"There were women who miscarried, and that was very painful," Esaie Modto, the head of a local village said. "But still, the worst was that three people, two adults and a girl died. That was very hard."

In all, 15 deaths have been blamed on the dumped waste, a suggestion backed by several reports, including a document produced yesterday by the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights.
The proposed settlement is less than the £100 million Trafigura paid the country's government for the clean up of this waste and to give some paltry compensation to the families of those who died.

That previous payment, which the company made without any admission of liability, led to the release of the company president, Claude Dauphin, from an Ivorian jail and the scrapping of criminal prosecutions there.

So, having heard the story, you will understand why I find the offer of £30 million to be derisory. Especially, as this payment will make all prosecutions go away without Trafigura even admitting that it has ever done anything wrong.
Marvin Outtarra, described as the president of the Union of Victims of Toxic Waste, told Reuters: "This compensation to be shared equally among all the victims doesn't work for me. Trafigura has given no compensation to the families of the deceased and the amount of compensation of 750,000 CFA francs does not vary based on the severity of the injuries." London-based Trafigura declared profits of $440m (£270m) last year on turnover of more than $70bn. Its traders are reported to receive annual bonuses of up to $1m.
The offer is an insult. I really hope the victims tell them to shove it. Trafigura internal emails referred to this waste as "shit". Well, that's also a good description of their latest offer.

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