Ivory Coast toxic waste lawsuit near settlement

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH-Boston. A high profile international legal dispute that's been dragging on for three years may be about to be settled. The dispute involves a multi-national trading company called Trafigura. It's been accused of illegally dumping toxic waste from a cargo ship in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. Fifteen people are thought to have died, and as many as 100,000 claim they became ill after being exposed to the sludge. Here is one Ivorian man the week after the 2006 dumping, talking about how it affected him.

IVORIAN MAN: I have headaches and I cannot breathe properly and I have another disease on my skin.

WERMAN: Trafigura denies the waste was dangerous but it did pay almost $200 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the government of Ivory Coast. Now the BBC reports that a second lawsuit on behalf of victims and their families about to be settled as well. The BBC's Liz MacKean on the story, and Liz you've been covering this story for quite a while now. Remind us what happened back in 2006.

LIZ MACKEAN: Well, it was one night in August three years ago and the ship, the Probo Koala had arrived at Ivory Coast from Europe. And on board was waste which the company Trafigura said was simple ship slops, and they wanted to have it taken away. So they hired a local company Tommy. Now the trouble was that the waste wasn't just simple slops at all, and the company Tommy had no license and no facilities to handle chemical waste. So what they did was they filled up twelve lorry loads and they took it off all around the city and dumped it. And almost immediately people were overwhelmed by a foul smell, and they started reporting a range of very similar symptoms like the one we've heard; breathing difficulties, sickness, and in all it's estimated that in the weeks that followed the dumping some 100,000 people reported to local clinics for help. And a number of deaths have been reported. The figures vary.

WERMAN: So if it wasn't just slops, what was it?

LIZ MACKEAN: Well, we have some knowledge of what it was. Before the waste was taken to Ivory Coast, Trafigura had attempted to off load it in Amsterdam. But because of the hugely powerful smell, an emergency happened at the port. The emergency services were summoned, and a sample was taken. Now this found there were levels of hydrogen sulfide. This can be very fatal to humans, and also a variety of sulfa compounds in the waste. Again, they can be dangerous. We know from emails at the time circulated to and from between Trafigura executives in London that they knew that the waste could be hazardous and they were struggling to find someone to take it off their hands for them.

WERMAN: Well, Trafigura had been disputing the nature of the waste that was on the ship, and yet today the U.N. Special Rapporteur into the tragedy, Okechukwu Ibeanu, had this to day,

OKECHUKWU IBEANU: We did not see any evidence that it may have been caused by other things. There were no particularly big events that could have happened before or around that time to create that kind of panic, that kind of report of illnesses and so on.

WERMAN: Okechukwu Ibeanu, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Trafigura incident in Ivory Coast. Liz MacKean from the BBC also today Trafigura said a new and second so-called global settlement is being considered and compensation is likely for victims of this dumping. And yet Trafigura says the U.N. report threatens to prejudice the legal action in the U.K. and the Netherlands. Are they trying to avoid an even more costly settlement?

MACKEAN: No, Trafigura have signaled very clearly that they aren't happy with the report, but in terms of the actual settlement, this is separate and we got news of this, a global settlement. It's being put to the claimants at the moment, and they're settling it just before the case was due to go to court. It would have been one of the largest class actions ever to be heard in London, and it was due to go ahead next month.

WERMAN: Trafigura apparently is also suing journalists who have been covering the story. What's that about?

MACKEAN: Well, Trafigura have used the services of a law firm known to be very tough on libel law and, in fact, my program News Night is facing a libel suit.

WERMAN: Which is pretty significant because News Night is widely viewed in the U.K. It would be like Night Line getting that suit here.

MACKEAN: Well, exactly, and the BBC has just entered our defense against the claims. So we wait to see what the next moves are.

WERMAN: BBC journalist Liz MacKean. Thanks very much.

MACKEAN: Thank you very much indeed, Marco.