The power of the dirty

When it comes to rich countries’ businesses infringing on developing countries’ rights in order to reach their self-interested and lucrative gains, there is a repetitive history of abuse. This could take the form of things such as exploitation of labor, modern slavery or simply giant corporations practicing extreme negligence towards humanity and the environment.

Three years ago, in August 2006, Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, was the victim of a deadly toxic waste dumping. The waste was discharged on 13 populated open sites, including sewers and lagoons, that has caused toxic fumes and leakages.

This catastrophe, described as the “biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century,” caused the death of at least 16 and the illness of thousands of Ivorians, according to a Greenpeace report published in September 2009. It also has shown how insensitive big corporations can be when it is time to “count the beans” and put human life in jeopardy.

The responsible party behind this catastrophe is the Swiss-based multinational company Trafigura, founded in 1993 (also based in Holland under the name Trafigura Beheer BV), which trades base metal, energy and oil. Trafigura denies any link between the dumped toxic waste and the cases of deaths and miscarriages among the affected Ivorian population. The company also arrogantly claims that the worst thing their toxic waste could have caused is “flu-like symptoms.”

Trafigura, the world’s third largest private oil and metal trader, which operates through 55 offices in 36 countries — namely in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and the Far East — has a 2008 record of US$440 million of profit.

In 2006, right before thousands of Ivorians sought medical help for “nausea, breathing problems and nosebleeds,” the company discharged 528,000 liters of extremely acidic waste, according to Research by the Dutch National Forensics Institute.

This discharge was first attempted in the Dutch port of Amsterdam, but the waste-disposing firm that Trafigura was supposed to be dealing with dramatically increased its price to treat the waste by up to 40 times. Trafigura then turned to Nigeria, but was turned down by two different firms there.

According to Greenpeace, the increase in price for the dumping of this toxic waste was due in part to the fact that the waste turned out to be far more toxic than expected. Eventually, Trafigura found a dumping company called “Compagnie Tommy,” which at the time had only been registered for a month, to dispose the toxic waste for a cheaper price.

According to the Center for Anti-Pollution Control in the Ivory Coast, the waste that was spread around the city of Abidjan, in the form of liquid sludge, contained mercaptan, hydrogen sulphide and caustic sodas. Hydrogen sulphide is a gas and a potent poison for the respiratory system. If lethal concentrations of the gas are reached in open air, exposure to it can quickly lead to “loss of consciousness, respiratory failure and death.” Mercaptan is a “highly volatile chemical” and causes nausea, eye irritation and respiratory complications. If exposed to a considerable amount of this concentrated chemical, a person could develop a kind of anaemia that could lead to coma and/or death. In other words, what the Ivorian population was exposed to was highly dangerous.

Despite these scientific facts, for three years Trafigura has been publicly insisting that its waste was “routine, harmless and absolutely not dangerous.”

Even so, several key points in this case made the Trafigura toxic waste dumping unethical and potentially illegal. First of all, developed countries such as Holland, are banned from dumping toxic waste in the developing world, because usually their environmental laws are significantly more lenient, according to an amendment to the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes of 1998. According to a Basel report regarding the ban of transfer of hazardous waste from OECD countries to non-OECD countries, “cross-border waste increased between 1993 and 2001, from two million to 8.5 million tonnes.”

The irony in this whole story is that Trafigura, despite having denied liability for putting thousands of Ivorians’ health and life at stake by neglecting to ensure the proper dumping of its toxic waste paid in 2007 a sum of US$198 million serving as an out-of-court settlement to assist in cleaning up the waste. Currently, Trafigura has also agreed to a settlement with Leigh Day and Co., the law firm which is representing 30,000 Ivorian claimants, to pay $1,546 per person, which is based, according to The Guardian, on “an acceptance that the company had no liability for the most serious deaths and injuries alleged in the dumping scandal.”

On one hand, Trafigura blames the gravity of the toxic dumping on Compagnie Tommy, the owner of which was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008 for poisoning, and claims it could not have foreseen the actions or the irresponsible ways adopted by the dumping company to get rid of the waste.

The question is, why is Trafigura still allowed to deny responsibility for its actions and point fingers at others? Even though Compagnie Tommy was punished for the improper dumping of the waste, it is Trafigura who provided the opportunity for such actions to occur.
The settlement between Leigh Day and Co. and Trafigura lead the 30,000 claimants receiving a relatively low sum of money, not equating in any way to the permanent health damages that were inflicted on them.

Also, in 2006, many allegations were made against Trafigura, affirming that there seems to be a connection between the dumped waste and the deaths and illnesses suffered by the Ivorian population. According to a U.N. expert on toxic waste’s report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, there is evidence that the deaths and illnesses result directly from the dumped waste, since thousands of people sought medical help and experienced symptoms immediately after the incident. According to The Guardian, “official local autopsy reports on 12 alleged victims appeared to show fatal levels of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulphide, one of the waste’s lethal byproducts.”

Leigh Day and Co. was also accusing Trafigura of having endangered the lives of many, but oddly recently withdrew the allegations made against Trafigura in 2006, that confirmed the number of deaths and miscarriages directly connected to the polluting incident. Now that a settlement has been made between the law firm representing the claimants and Trafigura, it seems that the biggest key players are satisfied, and those who were dumped on were once again neglected.

Unfortunately, this incident represents a terrible failure to set a good example of what kind of punishment should be inflicted on rich, multinational companies like Trafigura, who endangered the lives of many. It also sends the message to companies such as Trafigura that providing a band-aid solution to its victims is an easy way to get out of their environmental and human responsibilities.

For Trafigura, the fallout of the incident is just a “slap on the wrist,” but for many Ivorians this has been a disastrous life experience. The bottom line is that Trafigura’s actions should be reviewed more seriously because, in this case, there is still a possiblity that international laws may have been broken.

This would be the only way to prevent such events from reoccuring.

Sarah Khalil is the International Coordinator at the Manitoban.