Who is to blame for dumping toxic oil sludge?

A trial is under way in Abidjan of local officials accused of conniving in the dumping of toxic oil sludge in August 2006 and causing over a dozen deaths, and illnesses to tens of thousands.

Victims of the Abidjan dumping scandal, environmentalists and lawyers say the real culprits have slipped away.

The president of the Union of Abidjan and Surrounding Areas’ Victims of Toxic Waste, Ouattara Aboubacar, told IRIN the trial of 12 Abidjan port and customs officials was missing the big players: “This trial sanctions impunity. We are sending underlings to trial without trying their silent partner, [Netherlands-based oil trader] Trafigura. For us, this trial has the bitter taste of impunity.”

Trafigura said an Ivorian waste disposal company, Tommy Company, which had offloaded oil waste from the Panamanian-registered tanker Probo Koala, was responsible for the damage caused. Tonnes of sludge, the leftover low-quality oil that cannot be sold, were dumped near Abidjan’s residential communities.

In a 16 September statement Trafigura denied all responsibility: “This is an environmental tragedy, but it is not one caused by Trafigura.”

Isabelle N'Gbe, president of the Abidjan-based Port Victims of Toxic Waste, told IRIN the port had still not been entirely decontaminated, and that workers’ health continued to deteriorate.

Untreated

The poisonous sludge had not been treated to minimise the harmful effects of the waste.

Ivorian health authorities have reported tens of thousands of cases of vomiting, diarrhoea, nosebleeds and breathing problems in the wake of the dumping.

Trafigura said it could not be held responsible for existing lax dumping regulations: “People living near these sites had health problems as a result of untreated pollution and waste long before Tommy Company arrived with the slops [waste].”

In February 2007 the government dropped its investigation into the multi-billion dollar commodities’ trader,Trafigura, in exchange for over USD$214 million. Case closed, or so it seemed.

Victims

However, Martyn Day of the UK-based Leigh, Day & Company law firm told IRIN his firm would be representing up to 30,000 alleged victims of dumping in a civil case against Trafigura, set to start in London in October 2009. “We have a case against Trafigura… they absolutely knew the waste aboard its ship was toxic. They brought it to Abidjan in a war-torn country with no treatment facilities.” Day said the firm has already signed up 22,000 clients, will continue registering claims, and will seek between $3,500 for minor damages and up three times that amount for more serious cases.

Trafigura has responded with a libel case against the UK firm, saying it has not shown evidence the sludge caused health problems.

Marieta Harjono, a Netherlands-based anti-toxic waste lobbyist with the environmental campaign group Greenpeace, said it had launched a criminal case against Trafigura expected to take place in the Netherlands in late 2009. She told IRIN: “Trafigura, the big fish, can escape [criminality] in Ivory Coast, but we hope to catch it here in Amsterdam.”

Harjono said the Dutch case is charging the captain of Probo Koala, Trafigura, and the Amsterdam port and harbour storage authorities for not treating the waste before it continued on to Abidjan. The toxic waste was exported illegally and documents forged to give the impression the toxic oil sludge was merely oil waste, she said.

Moving oil sludge from one place to another is legal, but the rules are different if the waste is hazardous. The 1992 Basel Convention has attempted to reduce the shipment of hazardous waste.

When asked how this trial could lead to convictions given that the 2007 Abidjan case ended in a settlement, Greenpeace’s Harjono replied: “Yes, Trafigura has money to do what it wants, but we are relying on the justice system here in the Netherlands.”

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