Over 100,000 citizens of Africa’s Ivory Coast are demanding compensation and a cleanup for a nearly decade-old toxic waste disaster that continues to affect local health to this day.
2006: Trafigura Dumps Its Toxic Slops
Back in 2006, the freighter Probo Koala was looking for a place to dump its waste. The ship itself had a storied history: Run by Russians, registered in Panama and managed by Prime Marine, a Greek shipping company. From a legal standpoint, the most important bit of information is whose cargo it was carrying when it stopped in the port of Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. That would be Trafigura Beheer, a multinational oil trading firm that is registered in Amsterdam for tax purposes but is actually headquartered in Switzerland. Its operational headquarters is based in London.
In July 2006, the Probo Koala was docked in Amsterdam attempting to unload what at the time Trafigura called “conventional slops.” This is the liquid residue left over after a hold is rinsed with caustic soda – in this case to clean it of the oil shipment the freighter had recently unloaded in Algeciras, Spain. Months later, leaked Trafigura emails would reveal that this “caustic washing” is widely outlawed due to its propensity to create dangerous waste.
One 2005 email from Naeem Ahmed, Trafigura’s London manager at the time, acknowledged that “US/Singapore and European terminals no longer allow the use of caustic soda washes since local environmental agencies do not allow disposal of the toxic caustic after treatment.” This type of toxic waste is illegal to dump on any landfill in the European Union.
As the Probo Koala was unloading its slops, the smell was so foul that Amsterdam’s environmental authorities forced them to stop.
At the time, Trafigura claimed that what happened next was due to cost and not the freighter’s toxic payload. Trafigura’s London logistics director, Paul Duncan, ordered the Probo Koala to reload the slops – a move that The Guardian reports was “unprecedented” for the Amsterdam Port Service (APS).
Trafigura would later say that APS demanded an unjustifiable $1,250 removal fee for each cubic meter of waste. APS, however, told The Guardian that the removal fee changed when they discovered that the waste Trafigura was trying to unload “did not correspond to the information provided.”
It is important to note here that for the next three years Trafigura would claim that its waste was “absolutely not dangerous.”
After inquiring into ports at the Canaries, Togo and Nigeria, the Probo Koala ended up in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast.
In a series of underhanded maneuvers it has taken several years to uncover, several hundred tons of the freighter’s waste were pumped onto dozens of sites throughout Abidjan. It did not take long for the acrid fumes to raise notice, and then complaints.
And then people started to get sick.
Sickness, Scandal and a Government Overhaul
As information about Trafigura’s waste began to spread, the government of Abidjan warned its citizens to stay at least 200 meters away from alleged dumping sites. Despite this, many in the city still make their meager livings by scavenging in landfills. After the toxic slops were dumped, the fumes drove the scavengers off. But they didn’t stay away.
“When they first started dumping, many people stopped working,” Paul Sieh, an Abidjan resident, told VOA News. Sieh lived in the village of Akouedo, not far from a 100-hectare dumpsite. “They sensed something was going wrong here. But those who are having problems with their rent now, they don’t know what to do. They have to come and look for something to feed their families and take care of themselves. They don’t care about their lives.”
On August 21, the Ivory Coast Anti-pollution Center (Ciapol) tested areas of suspected contamination. According to their report, one sample “resembles an oil-based product [. . .] very close to petrol, with a high hydrogen sulphide content, a toxic substance, large doses of which may cause immediate death in the event of inhalation.”
Two weeks after the chemical dump, three people had died and over 1,500 residents had been treated after inhaling dumpsite fumes. By October, tens of thousands of Abidjans were experiencing vomiting, rashes and labored breathing. By that point, eight people had officially died (half of them children) and 8,000 had sought medical treatment.
For local doctors, the worst part was not knowing what exactly the city was inhaling. “We don’t know what we’re treating,” the manager of a local hospital told Reuters in September. “When they have stinging eyes or noses we give them drops. We want to know what it is so we know how to treat it.”
The scandal forced Prime Minister Konan Banny to dissolve his entire cabinet, another unprecedented event in Trafigura’s toxic tale.
2009: The Ivorian Government Releases Its Findings
In October 2009, a government commission released the findings of its investigation into the toxic dumping, indicting both Trafigura and the local authorities in the incident.
By this point, ten people had officially died and over 100,000 Abidjans had sought medical treatment.
The report lay a number of charges on Trafigura’s shoulders, including the claim that the company chose to ship its waste to Abidjan with the full knowledge that the city lacked the facilities to properly treat it. The report also suggested that Companie Tommy, the Ivorian firm that actually handled the waste, was a likely front company for Trafigura. Tommy was established in the intervening months between Trafigura’s decision to reload its waste in Amsterdam and the Probo Koala’s arrival in the port of Abidjan. Tommy’s removal fee was 16 times less than what Trafigura would have been charged by APS.
The report also condemned the actions and oversights of the Abidjan port and customs officials as well as the ministries of transportation and the environment.
In May of that year, a Dutch analysis of the waste carried by the Probo Koala indicated that the freighter contained roughly 2 tonnes of hydrogen sulphide, a highly dangerous gas that can cause nearly instant unconsciousness and death depending on the volume inhaled. Prolonged low-level exposure can cause nausea, bronchial constriction, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, dizziness, conjunctivitis and pulmonary edema.
A chemist told BBC Newsnight that if the Probo Koala’s chemical payload had been dumped in London’s Trafalgar Square, “You would have people being sick for several miles around…millions of people.”
2007 – 2012: Trafigura Pays Some Fines, Washes Its Hands
In 2012, Trafigura was ordered by a Dutch court to pay the equivalent of $1.7 million in fines for its illegal exportation of toxic waste. As Reuters reported, the Dutch authorities agreed to cease further action against Claude Dapuhin, Trafigura’s chairman during the toxic dump, in exchange for the company paying a 67,000 euro fine.
“Trafigura Beheer BV welcomes the end to these matters in the Netherlands,” the company said in a statement. “There is little doubt that mistakes were made and everyone involved would have wanted to see things handled differently. The company deeply regrets the impact the Probo Koala incident had – both real and perceived.”
As for compensation to the Ivory Coast, Trafigura reached a settlement with the government in February 2007 to pay $198 million in exchange for not being prosecuted. It would later pay 33 million euros to about 30,000 victims as part of a case filed in Britain.
In 2011, Greenpeace attempted to sue Trafigura in the Dutch court but the case was rejected due to the dumping occurring outside the Netherlands to alleged victims that were not Dutch citizens.
2015: The Ivorians Sue
By this point, the official death tolled has reached 17 and the number of residents affected by the waste totals 110,937.
In early March, a lawsuit was filed against Trafigura as part of an initiative by a Dutch foundation to seek justice and medical compensation on behalf of Abidjan’s victims.
“We represent victims who weren’t paid in the case in Britain. We want the issue solved for once-and-for-all,” Mathieu Cencig, the lawyer representing the Ivorians, told AFP.
By paying off the Ivorian government, Trafigura has been exempted from admitting any wrongdoing, dumping or deaths associated with its actions, and the government has since been accused of embezzling the money that was meant for the victims.
Trafigura continues to deny any wrongdoing to this day and has sought legal action against the BBC for what it claims is a libelous article on the Abidjan dumping. The BBC subsequently deleted the article, but it can be found on WikiLeaks.