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Trafigura: An Oil Traders’ Toxic Legacy

October 12, 2009

Trafigura, the world’s third-largest independent oil trader, last month agreed to a $48 million settlement in the Ivory Coast, for three deaths and health problems suffered by more than 30,000 residents when a company ship dumped toxic waste there in 2006. Greenpeace, which investigated the incident and campaigned to hold Trafigura accountable, has vowed to pursue legal action in the Netherlands against the company for manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm.

The Trafigura incident epitomizes the illegal international trade in toxic waste: avoiding European and U.S. regulations, Trafigua and other traders make lucrative profits dumping first-world hazardous wastes in the developing world. As a Greenpeace report notes, the Trafigura ship initially intended to dispose of the waste in Amsterdam, but when authorities there notified the ship that disposing of the toxic waste would entail additional charges, the ship left port for Africa. Under the Basel Convention, a UN charter that is legally binding in the EU, it is illegal to export hazardous waste from Europe to any non-OECD country.

When the Ivory Coast dumping was first exposed in 2006, Trafigura initially denied that the ship carried any toxic waste; at court, the company later denied the waste could have caused any illnesses, and was alleged to have bribed witnesses to induce them to change their stories. In May 2009, an official analysis found the dumped waste contained at least two tons of hydrogen sulphide, a chemical that is highly hazardous to surrounding communities. As one chemist told the BBC, the same amount of hydrogen sulphide dumped in the Trafalgar Square “would have people being sick for several miles around … millions of people.” A UN report found that “there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping.”

In addition, last month the UK Guardian reported that dozens of internal emails show that Trafigura knew the wastes were hazardous from the beginning and had planned to find “some way to pay someone to take them.” Trafigura’s cover-up of the affair included several threats and lawsuits filed against numerous media outlets, including the Guardian, the BBC, and Dutch and Norwegian media.

The Ivory Coast mess was the latest in a long line of Trafigura’s dirty and lethal operations. In 2001, the company smuggled 500,000 barrels of oil out of Iraq, allegedly after bribing a UN inspector, when that country was under a UN embargo. Trafigura was later fined $20 million for the incident. In 2006, a Trafigura sweetheart oil deal in Jamaica was exposed to have resulted from payments the company made to the ruling party there. The company was also alleged to have bribed South African officials for oil contracts there. In 2007, an explosion at a  Trafigura-contracted facility in Norway led to one of the worst pollution incidents ever there, leaving hundreds of residents ill throughout the area.

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