Trafigura fine won't help victims

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A federation of organisations representing hundreds of thousands of people claiming to be victims of the toxic waste dumped from the Probo Koala in Ivory Coast says a conviction handed down by a court in the Dutch capital Amsterdam is largely symbolic and won't really help.

by Klaas den Tek and Vincent Kanza

Yao Pipira Denis is President of the National Federation of Victims. He says he welcomes the court ruling which imposed a fine of one million euros on the company responsible for transporting the waste, multinational oil concern Trafigura.

But he says it won't really help those directly affected by the dumping of the toxic waste.

"It's a very good thing Trafigura has been found guilty. This story has been going on for four years now and we are satisfied that - for the very first time - there is a ruling. But it isn't a total satisfaction, one million euros is a symbolic amount of money. What we are especially concerned about is the victims and besides a fine we need a civil judgment that will compensate the victims of the Probo Koala."

The federation represents no fewer than 73 organisations totalling over 200,000 people.

On Friday, the Amsterdam court fined Trafigura one million euros for transporting dangerous chemical waste by ship to Ivory Coast in 2006. The judge said the company should not have shipped the waste to a developing country.

According to the verdict, Trafigura should have informed the Dutch disposal company, Amsterdam Port Services, that the waste was dangerous. The oil company said it was ship’s slops left over after cleaning up after a cargo of naphtha. APS initially accepted the waste but the parties disagreed about the price to be charged. Part of the waste was pumped off the ship, the Probo Koala, but the process was stopped after an appalling stench developed.

APS then decided to pump the waste back aboard the ship. A few days later, the Probo Koala sailed for an undisclosed destination. After a number of course changes, the waste was eventually transported to Abidjan in Ivory Coast. The judge said this was in breach of the EVOA treaty which forbids shipping such waste to developing countries.

Maximum fine
The Dutch prosecutors had called for a two-million-euro fine to be imposed. Court spokeswoman Toos Enkelaar explains why a lower fine was handed down:

“The judge decided on a lower amount because a charge of falsifying documentation was not proven. The maximum fine for exporting waste to a developing country was imposed. The court also took into account that the waste was offered to a reputable disposal company in Amsterdam.”

The waste was eventually dumped around Abidjan by a local disposal firm. The National Federation of Victims says thousands of people became ill. According to the United Nations, 15 people died as a result of the incident.

After the hearing, Trafigura lawyer Micha Wladimiroff said it was highly likely he would be appealing against the verdict. He says the judge should have taken other treaties and not just the EVOA one into account. He says not only environmentalists but also the business sector would welcome clarity on the international regulations governing dangerous ship’s waste

“You ought to know which rules apply and what demands are made when you ship to an African country, and this is not forbidden per se. Should you insist that the disposal company keep to certain regulations or is it enough to deal with a disposal firm accredited by the country concerned? This is the issue.”

Suspended sentences
A chemical expert from Trafigura and the captain of the Probo Koala were found to have been aware of the dangers of the chemical waste but to have kept silent about them. The chemical expert was said to be more interested in the commercial interests of Trafigura than in the health risks posed by the waste. He was given a six-month prison term suspended for two years and a fine of 25,000 euros.

Despite the fact that he was following instructions from Trafigura, the captain was found to have had a certain amount of personal responsibility in the affair. He was also found guilty of falsification. He was handed down a five-month suspended sentence.