Poison, Death and Disease: Trafigura's Exports to Africa
Oil is a dirty business, Especially in Africa. In 2016, a Swedish NGO, Public Eye, conducted an investigation into the poor quality fuels being sold by European companies to countries in the Sub-Saharan region. In the EU, owing to the negative health effects of sulphur dioxide, a by-product of burning diesel fuel, the maximum legal sulphur content of diesel fuel is 10 parts per million (ppm). Samples taken from pump stations across Africa were found to contain sulphur content of up to 1500ppm. Levels this high have the potential to pose a serious threat to human health, as sulphur dioxide is known to cause respiratory problems, disease, and even death.
In the report, the majority of this high sulphur diesel was traced to a small number of multinational trading companies, including Trafigura. Despite their claims of ‘corporate social responsibility’, they have a long history of being involved in international controversies. Trafigura was found guilty in a price fixing scandal in Malta, they were a benefactor in Iraq's notorious Oil-for-food programme; but probably their worst offences are related to toxic waste dumping in the Ivory Coast and the dirty Diesel trade on the continent.
The story of Trafigura’s waste dumping traces its’ roots all the way back to 2005, when a Mexican state-owned oil company ran out of storage space for its’ low grade, high toxicity coker gasoline, and decided to start offloading it on the cheap. Seeing easy money to be made, representatives from Trafigura had the oil loaded onto a cargo vessel, the Probo Koala, and set course for Amsterdam.
The companies plan was to process this oil into a low quality high sulphur diesel, and then sell it on the African market. Rather than run the expense of treating the oil in a refinery, the company opted for a cheaper solution. In a process known as ‘caustic washing’, large quantities of the strong alkali sodium hydroxide were added to the fuel while it was onboard the ship. Caustic washing is done to remove impurities from the oil to prepare it for further refinement, however the waste ‘slops’ from the process is extremely toxic and difficult to deal with. For this reason, caustic washing is banned in many countries.
Despite Trafigura knowing that it was illegal to dispose of caustic washing byproducts in Europe, an attempt was made by the Probo Koala crew to pay Amsterdam Port Services (APS) to take on the waste slop. When this substance was removed from the ship, it released such a foul smell that several port staff became physically sick. Allegations stand that Trafigura did not tell port staff what sort of waste they would be handling. The extreme toxicity of the slops led the disposal company to consult directly with the city of Amsterdam. In response to this change, APS increased its handling fee for the waste, from $41 per-cubic meter to $1250.
Rather than pay this fee and properly dispose of the waste, Trafigura opted to load it back onto the Probo Koala, and continue on route as if nothing had happened. The ships next port of call was Estonia, where the oil was treated and diluted with other petroleum products to produce a low grade, high sulfur diesel fuel. The next stop was Lagos, Nigeria, where this gasoline was to be offloaded and sold. Leaked internal emails from Trafigura show that the company made several attempts while in dock to dispose of its waste product. From the accounts, the company’s employees decided that the operation would be two risky, as their presence there was obvious and would draw too much attention.
A new plan was made to dispose of the waste in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast. Acting through shell companies, on the 19th of October 2006 the Probo Koala offloaded more than 500 tons of toxic waste at the city’s Port. This substance was then spread across the city and the surrounding area, poured off in waste grounds, public dumps, and along roads in populated areas. Trafigura bribed their way past any officials who would have stopped them, and this was done in the full knowledge that the city lacked the facilities to properly treat the substance.
The full scope of the waste dumping and the related illnesses were slow to emerge, but it ultimately developed into a full scale national emergency in the Ivory Coast. The first that many residents of Abidjan knew of this slop was the incredible smell that it created, as people living near landfill sites began complaining about a foul-smelling gas. The sources of this were quickly identified and locals began blocking the entrances of landfill sites, and turning away the trucks embossed with the freshly painted logos of Trafigura’s shell company.
As knowledge of this crisis spread, government officials in Abidjan began warning the public to stay at least 200 meters away from dumping sites. Despite this, many of the poorest people in the city made a living from scavenging in landfills, and they had few options. After the toxic slops were dumped, the fumes drove people off, but as one resident living near Akouedo landfill site recounted, they didn’t stay away.
"When they first started dumping, many people stopped working [in the landfill], 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."
Paul Sieh, resident of Abidjan. Original interview by VOA, 2009.
By October the 31st, events had begun to spiral out of control. By this stage there were 8 confirmed deaths and 15,000 people had sought treatment for inhaling chemical fumes. In efforts to avoid contamination of the food chain, large numbers of livestock which were kept around the dumping sites were culled by government officials. Protests began to erupt throughout the city, and people began blocking main roads and clashing with riot police. On the 4th of September, local authorities pleaded with the rioters on national television and radio, asking them to allow the free circulation of traffic, so that ambulances could reach the sick and injured. As minsters resigned in wake of the public outcry, the Ivorian Prime Minister, Konan Banny, was eventually forced to dissolve his entire cabinet. This step was described by onlookers as “unprecedented”, in the backdrop of a fragile country still picking up the pieces from its own civil war. In the end, at least 10 people died from exposure to the toxic slops, and 100,000 were treated in hospital.
For the government of the Cote d'Ivoire, it was clear where responsibility lay for the incident. Trafigura had chartered the Probo Koala and it was their employees who had bribed port officials in order to get the waste unloaded. To deal with the aftermath, on the 14th of September 2006 two Trafigura executives, Claude Dauphin and Jean-Pierre Valentini, travelled to Abidjan. After 4 days of negotiations, the pair were arrested and held in Abidjan city’s prison, charged with mass poisoning. On the 13th of February 2007, Trafigura finally came to a settlement with the Ivorian government. The company agreed to pay $198million for the cleanup of the waste, however they admitted no guilt or liability for the dumping. As part of the agreement, the two company executives held in Abidjan prison were released, and the charges against them dropped.
As far as Trafigura was concerned, the story should have ended there, and they made great efforts to stop others investigating. They were successful for a time. Although news corporations in Europe reported on the toxic spill, the full extent of Trafigura’s involvement was not immediately clear. That changed on the 11th of September 2009 however, as an internal Trafigura report into the Côte d'Ivoire waste dump was leaked to the Guardian newspaper. Trafigura responded quickly to this, with the help of a UK law firm Carter Ruck, the company acquired a super-injunction on the Ivory Coast Story; a gagging order, that prevented the Guardian or any other media sources from reporting on the incident.
The story might have once again ended there, were it not for the actions of Paul Farrelly, Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme. Using his Parliamentary privilege to avoid prosecution, the MP talked publicly about the threat that Trafigura and Carter Ruck’s super-injunction had on press freedom in the United Kingdom. At that point, all efforts to suppress the story were doomed, as the companies had now fallen afoul of the ‘Streisand Effect’. Once the public became aware there was something it wasn’t allowed to know, everyone was talking about it, and the details began to rapidly circulate on Twitter and other social media. Amid the public uproar, Carter Ruck was forced to alter its’ super-injunction, allowing it to be challenged in court. The gag was eventually lifted on the 16th of October 2009, allowing the Guardian to print the full leaked Trafigura report.
Once released, this new information spelled out exactly what Trafigura knew about the consequences of its actions, including a discussion of various harmful chemicals "likely to be present" in the waste. It contradicted many of the public statements given by the company, where they claimed the waste had been routinely disposed of and was ‘harmless’. The Health effects listed by the report included “burns to the skin, eyes and lungs, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness and death". It also suggested that the high number of casualties was "consistent with there having been a significant release of hydrogen sulphide gas".
While Trafigura has been taken to court in Ivory Coast, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, it has never publicly admitted guilt. Despite the internal leaks, paper trail and a mountain of physical evidence, Trafigura still publicly asserts that it did nothing wrong and had nothing to do with the disaster.
Since then, the company has made great efforts to improve its image and has publicly stated it wishes “to become acknowledged sector leaders in the way we manage corporate responsibility”. This is nothing more than a whitewashing exercise. No industrial policies have changed, the company has continued to make use of caustic washing and disposed of chemical waste in an improper manner. This is most obviously demonstrated in the Norwegian Vest Tank Accident in 2007. Again, Trafigura was paying an unlicensed disposal company to handle its caustic slops, an explosion occurred, and around 1000 local people were poisoned.
Since 2015, the company has started producing ‘Corporate Responsibility’ Reports, but these are simply press releases, used only to counter outside criticism. In response to the 2016 Public Eye ‘Dirty Diesel’ investigation, Trafigura’s CR report only admitted that there were “relatively high levels of sulphur and other toxic substances” in the fuels they sold. The company’s defence was that, despite it posing a health risk, what they are doing is perfectly legal in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the only effect of cleaning up their product would be for Trafigura to lose market share.
Although Trafigura’s record in Africa is shocking, it is by no means unique. Other companies such as Vedanta Resources and Shell PLC face equally damning accusations of corruption, poisoning and murder. This behaviour persists because these companies think they can act with impunity in Africa, ignoring the damage they cause and silencing those who oppose them. It is up to the public, the free press, NGOs and responsible leaders such as Paul Farrelly to hold them to account. Trafigura and their allies will do whatever they can to stop their actions coming to light. We must fight them to ensure that their lies and spin do not prevail.