The documents are ugly and embarrassing. In e-mails riddled with terms like “gasoline slops” and “caustic washing,” officials with Trafigura, a major global commodities trading firm, described plans to clean and re-sell contaminated oil from Mexico and deposit the wastes in Africa, since they were too toxic for regulators in Europe or the U.S. In one 2005 e-mail discussing oil-cleaning profits, Trafigura staffer James McNicol wrote, “This is as cheap as anyone can imagine and should make serious dollars.”
But what made it so “bloody” cheap, as another e-mail put it, was Trafigura’s decision to wash the oil on its own rather than pay for a full-fledged cleaning, and then pay a trucking outfit to dump the waste. The consequences were dire. Written throughout 2005 and 2006, the e-mails were part of a paper trail that Trafigura would later seek to hide from public view with help from British courts, which have become increasingly unkind to press freedoms—until a social-media protest of tweets and blogs forced the company to cease its efforts to keep the material secret.
Trafigura touts itself as one of the largest independent commodity traders on the planet—and the third-largest oil trader—with operations in forty-two countries. The corporation’s charitable arm, the Trafigura Foundation, prides itself on “making a real difference by creating genuine, positive and lasting changes in the societies, communities and projects it supports.”
Not in Abidjan, however. En route to its eventual home in the capital of Ivory Coast in 2006, the waste—a putrid black slurry of oil refuse containing caustic soda, sulfur, and hydrogen sulfide—traversed the globe. It started in Houston, Texas, and stopped in Estonia and later Amsterdam, where port officials insisted the mix was too toxic for dumping and would have to undergo cleansing. But Trafigura “balked” at the $300,000 cost, according to an October 2, 2006, story in The New York Times. The company then sought an easier regulatory climate in Africa. An Amsterdam port official would tell the Times, “We have never handed back or refused waste before. But the crux was that Trafigura refused to pay. If they had, the material would have been treated and there would have been no problem.”
As Trafigura officials hashed out the easiest way to dispose of the slops, an employee named Naeem Ahmed noted, “caustic washes are banned by most countries due to the hazardous nature of the waste.” Solution? McNicol would soon propose that Trafigura hire an outside firm and “pay these guys to take the shit away.” In March 2006, staffer Leon Christophilopoulos suggested, “I don’t know how we dispose of the slops and I don’t imply we would dump them, but for sure, there must be some way to pay someone to take them.”
And there was. In the middle of an August night in 2006, a trucking outfit hired by Trafigura dumped about a dozen tanker truckloads—roughly 400 to 500 tons—of the stinking waste in sites throughout Abidjan, a city with some 4 million people. Soon, local clinics swelled with tens of thousands of Ivorians complaining of nausea, vomiting, skin sores, nosebleeds, and other ailments. A report by U.N. investigators documented more than a dozen deaths that it alleges were connected to fumes from the waste. Trafigura has consistently rejected claims that the waste dumped by the trucker caused illnesses or deaths.
Fast-forward to 2009, when a more metaphorical odor surfaces. In September, as Trafigura negotiates settlements with the Ivory Coast government and Ivorian attorneys to compensate for the illnesses (it later agreed to pay nearly $50 million to some 31,000 Ivorian plaintiffs), the BBC’s Newsnight and The Guardian reveal internal e-mails—first obtained by Greenpeace—showing that Trafigura knew the waste was toxic enough to be banned in many countries. Trafigura’s lawyers, the powerhouse U.K. firm of Carter-Ruck, quickly convince the British High Court, in a secret September 11, 2009, injunction, to prohibit any public mention of the most revealing document, a scientific analysis of the waste, bleakly titled, “RE: Caustic Tank Washings, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.” Among other revelations, the draft analysis, commissioned by Trafigura, states that the chemical compounds in Trafigura’s waste “are capable of causing severe human health effects,” such as “headaches, breathing difficulties, nausea, eye irritation, skin ulceration, unconsciousness and death . . . . All of these effects were as reported in this incident.”
The court’s “super-injunction,” an increasingly popular device used in the United Kingdom’s litigator-friendly libel cases, prohibited naming Trafigura. The order even prevented mentioning the report in British Parliament. When The Guardian wrote that a member of Parliament, despite the ban, mentioned the report on the floor of Parliament, Trafigura threatened to sue and demanded the story be deleted from the Guardian’s Web site. “There was lots of legal bluster on the way,” Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told CJR, but “we never took anything down.”