17 October 2009

Trafigura stops suppressing report on Abidjan toxic waste dumping

It was with great pleasure to see the front page of today’s Guardian. The lead story reported on a victory against Carter-Ruck and Trafigura who had tried to suppress a scientific report about toxic waste dumping in West Africa, that was shown to the Guardian.

Yesterday evening Carter-Ruck, libel lawyers for Trafigura, wrote a letter to the Guardian which said the newspaper should regard itself as "released forthwith" from any reporting restrictions. This come after the paper was hit by a "super-injunction" banning all mention of it, despite the fact that it had been the subject of a parliamentary question.

The report, commissioned in September 2006 by Minton Treharne and Davies, said that based on the "limited" information they had been given Trafigura's oil waste, dumped cheaply the month before in a city in Ivory Coast, was potentially toxic, and "capable of causing severe human health effects".

The study said early reports of large scale medical problems among the inhabitants of Abidjan, were consistent with a release of a cloud of potentially lethal hydrogen sulphide gas over the city. The effects could have included severe burns to the skin and lungs, eye damage, permanent ulceration, coma and death.

The author of this initial draft study, John Minton, of consultants Minton, Treharne & Davies, said dumping the waste would have been illegal in Europe and the proper method of disposal should have been a specialist chemical treatment called wet air oxidation.

Trafigura subsequently did not use the report in the personal injury report in the claim against them and did not disclose the report's existence. Trafigura subsequently issued a series of public statements saying the waste had been routinely disposed of and was harmless. Trafigura based this decision on other reports produced from an analysis of the slops obtained from the Probo Koala ship. Trafigura dismissed complaints of illness in a lawsuit brought by 30,000 inhabitants of Abidjan, before being forced last month to pay them £30m in compensation and legal costs in a confidential out of court settlement.

The oil firm then conceded in a public statement that the toxic fumes could have caused "flu-like symptoms" to the inhabitants. But it was accepted in an agreed statement by both sides that expert evidence did not back the more serious claims of deaths, miscarriages or serious injuries, made in previous official statements by the Ivory Coast and British governments and in a UN report.
Before the settlement announcement, Trafigura's lawyers Carter-Ruck obtained a super-injunction from a judge, banning the Guardian not only from revealing the existence of the Minton report, but also from telling anyone about the existence of the injunction.

They said the Minton report was confidential because it had been obtained for possible use in litigation. Trafigura said the report was only preliminary and had proved to be inaccurate. They said hydrogen sulphide in the waste could not have broken down into a dangerous gas after the dumping and that other experts had concluded: "no other chemicals were released in concentrations capable of causing significant harm to human health".

Carter-Ruck was unable to prevent the publication of internal company emails by the Guardian, which confirmed Trafigura executives had been aware in advance that their waste was hazardous, and knew that it ought to have received expensive specialist treatment. Company traders talked about making "serious dollars" from paying someone to take away their "shit".

A statement by Minton, Traherne and Davies indicates that some of the conclusions in the report were incorrect, being based on limited information and was thus redundant.

Even if elements of the report were incorrect, there is one thing that screams out in all of this. Trafigura are, whichever way you look at it, a bunch of amoral money grabbing bastards who almost certainly would not have cared a damn if people would have died so long as it did not affect their profit margin. Had they given a damn in the first place they would have presented the waste for disposal in a matter legal in the European Union. But oh no, that was far too expensive so they looked for a cheaper option involving a bunch of cowboys in West Africa.

No matter how they spin it, this is the act which shows the very worst face of capitalist greed, the bully boy tactics of their lawyers Carter-Ruck highlighted the amorality of their business. Vermin like Trafigura and Carter-Ruck deserve each other. If there was any natural justice in this world it would be them scraping a desperate living in the margins of a Third World shantytown.


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