Lawyers Come Clean on a Toxic Waste Problem; Causation Conundrum: Martyn Day

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Byline: JOSHUA ROZENBERG

ACCORDING to a leading London environmental lawyer, the British arm of the world's third-largest independent oil trader has "backed off defending its actions" in the face of "overwhelming evidence" that it arranged for toxic waste to be dumped in the Ivory Coast. But Martyn Day's announcement last week was not quite the full story.

Day is representing 22,000 Ivorians who claim that their health was damaged in August 2006 by exposure to chemical waste dumped near their homes in Abidjan. Less than three months later, he launched a High Court claim against Trafigura, a Dutch oil trader, and its London-based operating subsidiary.

Trafigura had chartered an oil tanker known as the Probo Koala, which had been carrying naphtha. While at sea, the ship's operators treated the naphtha with caustic soda to reduce its mercaptan sulphur content.

The process, to improve its quality as motor fuel, produced liquid waste that was stored in the vessel's slop tanks.

While the ship was passing through Europe, Trafigura tried to dispose of the waste in Amsterdam.

But after the local port service decided to increase its disposal charges by some 3000%, the Probo Koala continued to Nigeria.

On a return voyage to the Baltics, Trafigura arranged it says on the advice of its local shipping agents for the waste to be offloaded at the port of Abidjan. It was here that a local company, unknown to Trafigura, arranged for it to be collected by moonlighting tanker-drivers, who dumped it on sites around the city.

Exactly what was in the waste is a matter of dispute, but there is no doubt that the smell of sulphur was appalling.

The Ivorian government claimed that over 100,000 people had become ill and 15 had died. Trafigura paid the Ivorians around ?100 million without any admission of liability, and some of this went to compensate local people.

THE crucial question for Trafigura was causation whether the claimants had become ill because of exposure to the waste. …