The multinational company Trafigura did a nifty deal in 2006, buying a large amount of coker gasoline from Mexican oil giant Pemex. This waste by-product of oil refining contains concentrated silica and sulphur, but Trafigura intended to process the waste to extract saleable naphtha. Better still, the company cleverly came up with a scheme to extract the valuable chemical in situ aboard the Panamanian-registered tanker Probo Koala, a vessel chartered to carry the coker gasoline. This involved ‘washing’ it with caustic soda, which separated the naphtha but greatly increased the toxicity of remaining waste.
As soon as a Dutch company contracted to dispose of the waste realized how dangerous it had become, the price quoted for the job went up twentyfold. Trafigura wouldn’t pay and Probo Koala set out in search of a contractor who would handle the foul-smelling toxic liquid, conveniently finding a newly formed outfit called Compagnie Tommy in the port city of Abidjan in the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) who agreed to process the waste for a tiny fraction of the price demanded in Holland.
Unfortunately, Compagnie Tommy’s idea of ‘processing’ was to dump 500 tons of waste in a dozen landfill sites in and around Abidjan. After a few weeks, people started complaining of problems ranging from headaches, nosebleeds and vomiting to severe skin burns and seared lungs. Nearly 100,000 Ivorians sought medical attention, over 30,000 sustained recordable injuries and 17 deaths were directly attributable to acute poisoning caused by the dumped toxic waste. The cumulative effect was a catastrophic medical emergency that brought down the Ivory Coast’s government, though Trafigura denied that there had even been any toxic waste aboard Probo Koala – and was quick to threaten (or take) legal action against anyone who suggested that the company was complicit in the illegal dumping.
When: August 2006
Where: Ivory Coast
Death toll: 17 known fatalities (though the real figure may be much greater).
You should know: Trafigura may have emphatically denied responsibility for, or knowledge of, the illegal dumping of toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire – but still came up with £100 million to pay for a clean-up operation. The Ivorian boss of Compagnie Tommy was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for his contribution to this large-scale medical disaster.