Greenpeace claims Trafigura director knew about toxic waste

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The director of Dutch oil trading company Trafigura personally approved the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d'Ivoire, Greenpeace says. The environmental group has unearthed Trafigura's internal e-mail messages which it claims show that the director, Claude Dauphin, was personally involved in the decision three years ago.

Listen to the Newsline interview with Greenpeace toxic campaigner Marietta Harjano:


Read Trafigura's internal e-mail messages as published by British broadsheet the Guardian.

Trafigura had agreed with Amsterdam port authorities that they would take in the Probo Koala tanker and its cargo of chemical waste, and treat the waste. When the waste turned out to be far more toxic than expected, the authorities charged Trafigura 20 times more than the sum agreed earlier. The oil company decided to sail the Probo Koala to Africa and dispose of the cargo there.

A company in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, agreed to process the waste. Once the chemical waste had been delivered, however, the company illegally dumped it on open rubbish tips, in sewers and lagoons all over Abidjan. The fumes and leakages from the black sludge caused hundreds of thousands of Ivorians to become ill, and in the end 16 people died.

Research by the Dutch National Forensics Institute revealed that the Probo Koala had transported 528,000 litres of extremely acid waste. The ship itself has since been laid up in the harbour of Tallinn, Estonia.

Case closed
Reopening a closed court case is quite a convoluted affair. The Amsterdam court decided last year not to prosecute Mr Dauphin. Greenpeace has resorted to lodging a formal complaint against the Public Prosecutor's Office, saying that they are failing to prosecute criminal offences and pointing to the new evidence found in the e-mail messages. If the complaint is accepted, the case will have to be reopened to investigate the alleged new evidence. The case needs to be handled by Dutch courts because Trafigura's headquarters is in the Netherlands.

Trafigura has consistently denied any responsibility for the waste dumping and its consequences. The oil trader is refusing to comment on Greenpeace's complaint.

Greenpeace conducted its research jointly with broadcasting organisations BBC and NRK Norway, and the newspapers the Guardian and de Volkskrant. How exactly they were able to lay their hands on Trafigura's internal e-mails has not been revealed.

Covering up?
On Wednesday Trafigura appeared in London in another court case where 31,000 victims of the waste dumping claimed damages from the company. In a an apparent move to prevent potentially incriminating evidence from coming into the public domain, Trafigura settled the case out of court, agreeing on a financial compensation sum for the victims.

Trafigura spokespersons deny that the settlement is in effect an attempt to cover up its responsibility. In response to the Greenpeace allegations Trafigura refers to a statement on its website, which says “The company has always maintained that the Probo Koala’s slops could not possibly have caused deaths and serious or long term injuries,” and “any suggestion that the vessel was sent to West Africa solely for the purpose of offloading its slops is entirely inaccurate.”

Human rights violations
The United Nations special rapporteur on the Probo Koala dumping, Okechukwu Ibeanu, released a report today concluding that there is strong evidence to show the incident resulted in human rights violations. He said that although Trafigura claimed the deaths and illnesses in Abidjan could not have been caused by the toxic waste, it was "not a coincidence that thousands of people have been ill after the dumping". His report says people were exposed to the toxic slurry directly through skin contact, and indirectly through ground and surface water, and crops grown in contaminated soil.

Interview by Michael Blass