Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trafigura: the ugly face of capitalism

The latest installment in Trafigura’s sordid attempts to gag British media occurs today when the high court issues its judgement on the libel action the company took out on the BBC. Trafigura is the notorious oil and commodities trading company which was responsible for 15 deaths and the injuries of thousands of West Africans after it dumped oil waste. Trafigura says it is the world's third-biggest private oil trader, and declared $440m profit last year. Its 200 traders are reported to receive annual bonuses of up to $1m each. But it is highly sensitive to criticism and sued BBC’s flagship current affairs show Newsnight for telling the truth that they were responsible for murder. The Guardian, itself a victim of several Trafigura legal actions, says the BBC case was one of a series of legal threats against the media in several countries brought by the company. (Photo: AFP/GETTY)

Their most reprehensible order came in October when Trafigura made an extraordinary attempt to stop the Guardian from reporting on parliament. The attempt backfired after it ignited a Twitter firestorm and its lawyers Carter-Ruck withdrew the injunction within 24 hours. On that occasion Trafigura were trying to stop publication of a report they commissioned about their dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. 12 people died and 31,000 people were injured as a result of their illegal dumping of a by-product of coker naptha in 2006.

After repeatedly denying liability, Trafigura eventually agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement more than $50m to almost 30,000 inhabitants of Ivory Coast’s largest city Abidjan. Nevertheless Trafigura engaged Carter-Ruck again to bring the libel action against the BBC on the basis that the company had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, not just sickness. This was despite official pronouncements by a UN investigator, and the Ivorian and British government which referred to deaths being caused directly by the dumping. Trafigura were able to get away with this because of the settlement it struck with another British law firm Leigh Day which led the class action acted on behalf of the Ivorians. The eventual compensation resulted in an agreed statement making no claims about deaths.

The original problem was a result of western greed and lax Third World safety standards. In 2005 Trafigura bought dirty oil contaminated with coker naptha from Mexico for next to nothing with the intention of cleaning it and selling it on for profit. The cleaning process involves pouring tonnes of caustic into the coker naptha but this generates dangerous and deadly waste such as hydrogen sulphide. The process is so dangerous, it is banned in most western countries.

But African countries are less strict. Trafigura chartered a ship and took it to Abidjan where they illegally fly-tipped at 15 locations around Abidjan. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of people reported a range of similar symptoms, including breathing problems, sickness and diarrhoea. In September 2009 BBC Newsnight revealed it had uncovered email evidence to show Trafigura bosses knew the waste dumped in Ivory Coast was hazardous. The BBC were backed up by a UN Report on the matter which found "strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the cargo ship".

The Minton Report which exposed the dumping and blamed Trafigura remains off-limits to British media due to a host of injunctions. According to Wikileaks which is keeping access open to the report, the illegal Ivorian dumping is “possibly most culpable mass contamination incident since Bhopal.”

Trafigura, meanwhile, released a disengenuous statement on 16 October aimed at dispelling “further misunderstandings” of what happened in Abidjan. They attempted to discredit the Minton Report (which they had commissioned) on the basis of its “hypothetical ideas”, the fact that no visits were made to Ivory Coast and its analysis was overtaken by field analysis by the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Though it doesn’t say whether the NFI analysis contradicted Minton, it is highly unlikely it did, given it was used as a basis to settle the class action.

None of that matters now except preventing the truth from being told. But here’s to Trafigura’s failure. Their dishonesty, greed, selfishness and contempt of public opinion deserve the widest possible audience and criminal action. They represent capitalism at its venial worst.

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