In Côte d’Ivoire, it’s toxic business as usual

At first sight it looked like an ordinary business news item. On 10 February 2016, it was announced that Petroci, the Ivorian state-owned oil company, had agreed to sell its petrol distribution network to the Swiss-based private company Puma Energy.

Petroci suffered a 75 per cent loss in revenues last year following the plunge in global oil prices. With projected earnings of US$30 million from the sale of part of its assets, it seemed like a savvy business move.

But it’s also highly controversial. In Côte d’Ivoire, Puma Energy is synonymous with the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster. On 19 August 2006, the Probo Koala oil tanker, which had been chartered by the Dutch/UK/Swiss-based multinational oil trader Trafigura Beheer BV, offloaded 500 tonnes of highly toxic petrochemical waste at multiple sites across Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire.

Initially, disposal of the waste was supposed to take place in the port of Amsterdam but Trafigura deemed the cost of safe treatment – €500,000 – too expensive. Five failed attempts later (in Malta, Italy, Gibraltar, France and Nigeria), Compagnie Tommy – an Ivorian private company contracted by Puma Energy – offered to dispose of the waste for €13,000.

The discharge took place in various open-air dump sites in poor residential areas of the city, with no capacity to deal with the waste. According to official state records, exposure to the toxic waste led to 17 deaths. Over 100,000 people sought medical assistance for symptoms ranging from skin irritation to vomiting, breathing difficulties and chemical burns.

Amnesty International described the incident as “one of the worst corporate-created disasters of the 21st century”.

Locals worry that the effects of pollution still linger today and feelings still run high. Sections of the Ivorian press still refer to the companies involved as the “hangmen of Abidjan”.

Too little responsibility

The first grievance deals with the extent to which Trafigura and Puma Energy (which is now co-owned by the Angolan state oil company Sonangol) have been held to account.

In 2007, just a few months after the disaster, Trafigura reached a settlement with the Ivorian government. It agreed to pay compensation worth 95 billion CFA francs, around US$195 million. In return, it obtained protection from any possible prosecution by the Ivorian authorities.

Trafigura also faced justice in the countries where it has a legal base. In 2010, a Dutch court found it guilty of illegal exporting waste from the Netherlands. Trafigura was fined US$1 million, but no investigation was conducted over what happened in Côte d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile in 2009 in the United Kingdom, Trafigura settled out of court, agreeing to pay 30,000 claimants approximately US$1500 each, but again without admitting any liability.

For Amnesty International and Greenpeace – two of the international NGOs that have been following the scandal from day one – these settlements do not equate to justice.

In a 2012 joint report, the NGOs wrote: “The persistent failures – to hold the company fully to account, to disclose information and to ensure compensation reaches all those who are entitled to it – mean that the toxic waste dumping at Abidjan is not only a crime committed back in 2006 but an ongoing travesty of justice today.”

For the waste dumping victims in Côte d’Ivoire, the situation took a turn for the worse in 2010, when 4.65 billion CFA francs (around US$8 million) of the UK compensation fund ended up in the hands of the National Coordination for Victims of Toxic Waste (CNVDT), a bogus organisation representing the victims.

A minister in President Alassane Ouattara’s government was found to be involved in the scandal and was sacked in 2012.

The legal battle surrounding the misappropriation of victims’ funds is still ongoing. Some 6000 out of the 30,000 people affected are yet to receive any restitution.

Charles Koffi is one of them. As President of the National Network for the Defence of the Rights of Toxic Waste Victims in Côte d’Ivoire (RENADVIDET-CI), he is also the person who brought the CNVDT to court. He does not mince his words about the Puma Energy/Petroci deal: “The state only cares about the interests of Trafigura and its affiliated company,” he tells Equal Times.

His disappointment also stems from the fact that President Ouattara made a pledge during his 2010 electoral campaign to ensure a transparent conclusion to the Trafigura court saga. “It’s a commitment that has been largely unattended,” Koffi adds.

From his perspective, a double act of economic injustice has been perpetrated: first, to Côte d’Ivoire, a country with poor safety regulations and a GDP less than the annual profits of the oil trading multinational which poisoned its land; and secondly, to the thousands of vulnerable Ivorians who have been denied even the meagre compensation owed to them.

Better in than out

But not everybody is against the deal. “Puma Energy has never been forbidden to keep working in Côte d’Ivoire. It has been paying taxes and duties since the toxic waste affair.

Why wait for this project [the Petroci/Puma deal] to dig out the past and argue that Puma Energy should be disqualified?” argues Alice Ouedraogo, an Ivorian-Burkinabe journalist with who specialises in Ivorian politics.

“Puma Energy neither has any interest in finding an agreement with Abidjan, nor in paying compensation to victims unless it can keep running its business in Côte d’Ivoire. Isn’t keeping Puma Energy’s interests in Côte d’Ivoire the best way to compensate the victims, along with depolluting the contaminated sites?” she asks.

For Lucy Graham, a legal advisor for Amnesty International’s business and human rights team, it is true that there is no legal barrier to stop Trafigura and Puma Energy from doing business. The issue is one of ethics. “Trafigura managed to get away from its responsibilities in a fashion that would have not been possible had the accident happened in Europe,” she tells Equal Times. “Business has been prioritised over human rights since 2006.”

As the legal battle for compensation continues, another major source of concern for Abidjan’s 1.9 million residents is the uncertainty about the genuine decontamination of the affected sites.

In 2012, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the government of Côte d’Ivoire signed an agreement for a thorough, new assessment, since “in spite of the subsequent clean-ups of the sites, there is still significant and widespread concern within the local community about the persistent health and environmental impacts of the waste dumping.”

However, to date, no field assessment has been made.

Muralee Thummarukudy, a senior programme officer in UNEP’s Disaster Risk Reduction Unit tells Equal Times: “We have not started the work in earnest as we have been waiting for the payment for the assessment to arrive from the government of Côte d’Ivoire. The very latest news we have is that the first installment has been processed recently.”

Until that assessment has been made, Abidjan’s most vulnerable residents will continue grappling with the aftermath of a man-made environmental disaster that should have never been allowed to happen.