A London-based multinational commodities company is facing a £100m claim for compensation over allegations that it arranged to dump 400 tons of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, causing the deaths of 10 people and injuring up to 100,000.
The case follows an environmental disaster in Ivory Coast's economic capital, Abidjan, which triggered violent street protests and led to a temporary change of government.
Many of the protesters, who lived in the residential suburbs of the city, complained they had suffered sickness and nausea from exposure to the chemicals. Hundreds were treated in hospital.
This week, British lawyers for some of the claimants began legal proceedings in the High Court for personal injury against Trafigura, the London-based company that chartered the tanker carrying the waste product.
The claim states that in August this year the supertanker Probo Koala docked in Abidjan after a long and complicated journey from Europe. In Amsterdam, a dispute over the high cost of disposing of the ship's toxic cargo had led to a decision by Trafigura to leave Europe and dispose of the waste cheaply in Africa, the claimants allege.
Having visited Nigeria, where the ship's captain could not find a suitable waste disposal company, the Probo Koala arrived in the Ivory Coast.
Once in Abidjan, the claimants allege, Trafigura contracted with a local company, Tommy, to dispose of the waste. Tommy dumped hundreds of tons of the toxic waste in open air sites and into the waterways of Abidjan. The consequences for the local population were disastrous, says the London law firm acting for the claimants.
The ensuing panic brought about a change of government and officers from Trafigura, who went to Ivory Coast to investigate what had gone wrong, were thrown into prison.
The London law firm Leigh Day & Co has been working with Greenpeace International, which asked it to help represent the claimants.
Representative claims have now been commenced in the High Court in London on the basis that Trafigura was negligent and that this and the nuisance resulting from its actions caused the injuries to people in Abidjan.l
Leigh Day & Co is working in collaboration with the French human rights law firm Sherpa and is also liaising with the Dutch law firm Van Der Goen, as well as organisations in Abidjan, to represent the interests of community groups and the alleged victims.
Martyn Day, of Leigh Day & Co, said: "This has been a disaster on a monumental scale. We hold Trafigura fully to account for all the deaths and injuries that have resulted from the dumping of their waste.
"Although the events took place thousands of miles away it is right that this British company is made to account for its actions by the British courts, and made to pay British levels of damages for what happened. A British company should act in Abidjan in exactly the same way as they would act in Abergavenny."
A spokeswoman for Trafigura said she could not comment directly, but the company maintains that the "slops" from the Probo Koala were not "dumped" by Trafigura but were offloaded into road tankers to Tommy, an Ivorian ministry-certified disposal agent, under the supervision of customs, port and environmental officials.
It says it was the Ivory Coast company that allegedly dumped the slops at a number of separate sites around Abidjan several days afterwards.
A statement on the company's website says: "Trafigura commenced legal action against Compagnie Tommy on 8 September. The slops discharged were not 'toxic waste'. They were a mix of gasoline blend stock, spent caustic soda and water, as used routinely to clean gasoline cargos. The slops did not contain hydrogen sulphide, as shown by independent tests commissioned by Trafigura."
Trafigura has now set up its own independent inquiry into the events that led to the disaster. It is chaired by the former Scottish minister Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who also headed an inquiry into the cost over-run of the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh.Reuse content