Dutch prosecutors say Trafigura knew Ivory Coast waste was toxic, tried to hide it

By Toby Sterling, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dutch prosecutors: Trafigura knew of toxic cargo

AMSTERDAM — Dutch prosecutors accused Trafigura AG of putting profits ahead of safety at the start of the company’s criminal trial Tuesday, saying the oil trader hid hazardous waste in a ship that docked in Amsterdam in 2006 and then exported it illegally.

The waste was later dumped in Ivory Coast in what became a major environmental scandal.

Toxic waste sickened thousands in the African country in August 2006, though Trafigura insists the waste from its ship, the Probo Koala, could not have caused serious illness.

The company, based in Lucerne, Switzerland, has denied any wrongdoing. But it paid €157 million ($191 million) to Ivory Coast to help clean up the waste and another €40 million ($50 million) to victims in a British settlement this year.

Under the British settlement, lawyers agreed the waste could only have caused minor ailments. But the U.N.’s top expert on toxic waste, Okechukwu Ibeanu, said in 2009 “it is clear that there is a direct and indirect connection” between the waste and 100,000 illnesses and 16 deaths that Ivory Coast attributed to the pollution.

The Dutch criminal case focuses only on the docking of the oil tanker in Amsterdam in June and July of 2006, and will not address details of what happened after the ship left port.

The ship had begun unloading waste “slops” from one of its tanks in Amsterdam, but then had them pumped back aboard after a dispute over processing costs.

An investigation into the composition of the slops was still under way when the ship was granted permission to leave, which prosecutors say violated Dutch law.

Prosecutor Luuk Boogert said Trafigura, Amsterdam Port Services BV and city authorities all had put “self-interest above people’s health and environment” when they allowed the ship to depart with a hazardous cargo.

He said Trafigura first tried to conceal how dangerous the waste was, then “dumped it over the fence” in Africa to save €400,000.

“Cheap, but with consequences,” he said.

Trafigura is charged with intentionally exporting hazardous waste, concealing the nature of the waste when it arrived in Amsterdam, and fraud. It risks a large fine, though Boogert has not yet made sentencing demands.

Trafigura lawyer Aldo Verbruggen said the charges were based on an “unfounded moral judgment.”

“Trafigura is a company that takes responsible entrepreneurship very seriously,” he said.

Trafigura trader Naeem Ahmed is named in the suit, but did not appear in court Tuesday.

Company CEO Claude Dauphin argued successfully he should not be part of the case, though prosecutors have appealed that argument.

The ship’s Ukrainian captain, Sergiy Chertov, is accused of assisting the company in fraud. He was not in court, and is expected to testify remotely.

Individuals found guilty of breaking Dutch environmental law face a maximum sentence of six years in prison.

Amsterdam Port Services director Evert Uittenbosch and the city itself are charged with “leaving dangerous waste in the hands of someone not qualified to process it.” They argue they acted correctly.

The Dutch case is expected to last around two months.

Trafigura eventually paid Compagnie Tommy, a contractor in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to dispose of the ship’s waste. On the night of Aug. 17, 2006, Tommy used trucks to dump waste furtively at 17 sites in the city.

Tommy’s owner, Nigerian Salomon Ugborugbo, was sentenced in Ivory Coast to 20 years for poisoning.

Trafigura says it is not responsible for Tommy’s actions.

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