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From The Socialist newspaper, 4 August 2010

Profiting from wrecking the environment

AN OIL trading company has been fined £840,000 after being convicted for concealing the dangerous nature of toxic waste which was subsequently dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006, causing thousands of people to fall ill.

John Sharpe

The company, Swiss-based Trafigura, one of the world's biggest commodities traders, made £651 million profits last year.

The fine represents just 0.12% of its annual earnings. The judge in the Amsterdam trial found that Trafigura had done what European regulations on hazardous waste were designed to prevent - "namely the export of waste to the third world and harming the environment".

Prosecutors argued that Trafigura had put "self-interest above people's health and environment". It would have cost £626 a tonne to dispose of the 500 tonnes of the foul-smelling sludge, an oil refining by-product, in Amsterdam, but only £22 a tonne in the Ivory Coast, saving the company £334,000.

The Ivorian operator, Compagnie Tommy, used a fleet of trucks to dump the slops under cover of darkness in the open air at over a dozen sites around the city of Abidjan.

The slops contained mercaptans,sulphur-based chemicals. The boss of Tommy was jailed and the Ivorian government was forced to resign. Last year, Trafigura had agreed to a £30 million settlement to 31,000 Ivorian claimants. That court case cost over £100 million in legal fees, more than three times that which the claimants had won.

In exchange Trafigura accepts no legal liability. They also paid £126 million to Ivory Coast to help clean up the waste. Part of that agreement was the release of two jailed company executives and that Trafigura would not face a prosecution in Ivory Coast.

Trafigura's legal firm, attempted to use a 'super injunction' to prevent the Guardian from reporting a parliamentary question by Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-Under-Lyme, about the case.

A super injunction is where the party bringing the injunction, the reason for the injunction and even the existence of the injunction is secret on pain of imprisonment.

The attempt was dropped after the details of the question were plastered all over the internet. Sue that!

These callous, rich and powerful companies, when caught, only suffer a pin prick of a fine. It appears that people's health and the environment are just so many obstacles to be overcome. Clearly, as long as big business continues to dominate society it will continue to wreck the environment.

  • Students and academics at Oxford are angry that their university has accepted more than £3 million from a foundation established by Graham Sharp, a founder of Trafigura. The University authorities are of course "delighted" to receive the bung.
  • The former chief of the Octel chemical works near Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, is facing extradition to the US after the company (renamed Innospec) admitted to bribing officials to sell toxic fuel additives to Iraq.
  • Tonnes of tetra ethyl lead (TEL) were exported to Iraq despite it being banned as a health hazard in the US and Europe. Octel also bribed officials in Indonesia to delay the phasing out of TEL there.
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