It reads a little bit like a John Grisham novel. An oil trading company at the heart of the city of London comes up with an innovative way to make massive profits by refining dirty gasoline. Only problem is, the process will produce a highly toxic sludge that is difficult to dispose of. Sure, they could pay an expensive fee to get it done in Rotterdam, but profits can be kept even higher by doing the dirty and dumping the caustic sludge in the city of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, West Africa.
It's a plan designed to squeeze every last drop of money out of a dirty deal. But then the local population starts to suffer horrendous health effects, presumably from the toxic waste which has been dumped next to homes and workplaces. Whole areas of the city are evacuated, 15 people die, many more are permanently disfigured. People beseige health clinics demanding treatment.
Even if you're familiar with some of the worst excesses of corporate malpractice, the behaviour of Trafigura, as exposed in the Guardian today, is likely to make your blood boil. Not only did the company's actions knowingly and illegally dump life-threatening chemicals implicated in the deaths and health problems, they then fought a vicious and heavy-handed legal campaign to try and cover up their actions, and frighten the journalists following the trail they'd left into silence.
Our massive respect to the Guardian for pushing ahead with the story in the face of an injunction against them, and for forcing Trafigura into a climb-down over the issue. The company has now agreed to settle with 31,000 residents of Abidjan who brought a court case against them over the issue. It's well worth reading the story in the Guardian, if only to marvel at the greed, cowardice and general unpleasantness of the traders who hatched the plan and ruined so many people's lives:
Thousands of west Africans besieged local hospitals in 2006, and a number died, after the dumping of hundreds of tonnes of highly toxic oil waste around the country's capital, Abidjan. 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.
Trafigura has been publicly insisting for three years that its waste was routine and harmless. It claims it was "absolutely not dangerous".
But the dozens of damning internal Trafigura emails which have now come to light reveal how traders were told in advance that their planned chemical operation, a cheap and dirty process called "caustic washing", generated such dangerous wastes that it was widely outlawed in the west.
Our International office tracked down the details of the case that have led to this revelation, and our Netherlands office have now filed a complaint with the Court of Justice in The Hague against the National Public Prosecutor's Office for its failure to prosecute criminal offences committed in the Ivory Coast. We'll see where it goes.