Take one of the world’s largest oil traders, the world’s most famous libel law firms and one of the most famous spin doctors and spin a trail of devious pollution, deaths, mass injury, lies and legal threats.
You have the story of Trafigura, that could be finally reaching its closing chapter.
The British oil trading giant, Trafigura – the world’s third largest trader – has agreed to pay an unprecedented multimillion-pound payout to reach a “global settlement” against 31,000 Africans.
They fell ill from tonnes of toxic waste dumped illegally in what has become one of the most famous cases of pollution incidents in recent decades.
The legal claim has gone on for three years and is Britain’s largest ever class action lawsuit after highly contaminated stinking sludge from Trafigura’s ship was covertly dumped at night in landfills around Abidjan.
The incident caused at least 100,000 residents to seek hospital treatment, complaining of breathing difficulties and sickness. A number also died, with official autopsy reports on 12 alleged victims appearing to show fatal levels of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulphide, one of the waste’s lethal byproducts.
For the last three years, Trafigura has insisted the slurry was dumped without its knowledge and could not have caused serious injury or illness. Trafigura’s libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have been ruthless in demanding stories be deleted including from the Guardian, the Dutch paper Volkskrant, Norwegian TV and the BBC’s Newsnight.
Its spin doctors, Bell Potttinger, have also tried to quash the story.
But new internal emails published on the Guardian website today show that Trafigura “was fully aware that its waste dumped in Ivory Coast was so toxic that it was banned in Europe.”
According to the paper: “The documents reveal that the London-based traders hoped to make profits of $7m a time by buying up what they called ‘bloody cheap’ cargoes of sulphur-contaminated Mexican gasoline. They decided to try to process the fuel on board a tanker anchored offshore, creating toxic waste they called ‘slops’.”
It continues: “To clean up the dirty fuel, which they described as “crap” or “shit”, the traders planned to add caustic soda to absorb sulphur contaminants, despite being told this process was banned in the west.”
One trader wrote on 10 March 2006: “I don’t know how we dispose of the slops and I don’t imply we would dump them, but for sure, there must be some way to pay someone to take them.”
And take them some did: a local contractor who dumped the toxic waste all round the city, containing unstable substances as mercaptans, mercaptides, sodium sulphide and dialkyl disulphides. Those who came into contact risked burns, nausea, diarrhoea, loss of consciousness and even death.
Martyn Day, the solicitor leading the massive class action, said: “Over the last few weeks we have been exploring with Trafigura the possibility of resolving the 30,000 claims. We have reached a point where we are now in the process of putting a global deal to the claimants. I am optimistic as to the outcome of that process. The claimants are very pleased and are keen to see the issue resolved.”
Of course the problem with a pre-trial settlement is that despite paying out tens of millions, Trafigura admits no liability or guilt. Yesterday it said: “There is no evidence to suggest that the slops would generate hydrogen sulphide at levels that could have caused the deaths and serious injuries alleged.”
Its spin doctors are still trying to spin the truth. Bell Pottinger, still argues “Trafigura has always done its business in an ethical and transparent manner.”
So transparent that this is not the only scandal to hit the murky company. It has also been linked with accusations of bribery, and smuggling, according to the Guardian.
Welcome to the dirty world of oil trading..