Trafigura accused of flouting public health over toxic cargo

The oil-trading company Trafigura was yesterday accused of putting "self-interest above people's health and environment", after a ship carrying toxic sludge which was dumped in Africa was allowed to leave the port of Amsterdam with the noxious cargo on board.

The Swiss-based company, which last year made a profit of $1bn (£651m), faced the claim on the opening day of a trial in the Dutch city. The company is accused of intentionally exporting hazardous waste and concealing its nature when a vessel it had chartered, the Probo Koala, visited the Netherlands carrying hundreds of tonnes of chemical slops in July 2006.

The ship eventually left the port after Trafigura Beheer BV, the oil trader's Dutch subsidiary, was told it would have to pay significantly higher costs to process the waste. About a month later, the slops were illegally dumped in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, making thousands of people ill.

Trafigura, which has always said it did not know that the waste was dangerous or that the chemicals would be dumped, denies the charges. The company is being prosecuted alongside the city of Amsterdam, waste disposal contractor Amsterdam Port Services (APS), the captain of the Probo Koala and a London-based employee of Trafigura.

The public prosecutor Luuk Boogert told Amsterdam District Court that the events in the Ivory Coast did not form part of the charges, but said he believed that Trafigura had disguised the harmfulness of the waste and illegally exported it out of the Netherlands after APS quoted a higher-than-expected price for disposal of the slops.

Instead, the waste had ended up in West Africa, the court heard. Mr Boogert said: "The waste is dumped in a third world country. Cheap, but with big risks for public health and the environment. The company saves €400,000 [£334,000]."

The prosecutor added that Trafigura, APS and the city of Amsterdam had all put "self-interest above people's health and environment" when they allowed the Probo Koala to leave the Netherlands with a hazardous cargo, thereby allegedly breaking Dutch waste export regulations. APS denies any wrongdoing.

Aldo Verbruggen, for Trafigura, told the court: "Trafigura is convinced it has followed the rules that are at issue."

Trafigura approached APS to process the slops when the Probo Koala arrived in Amsterdam laden with waste, including caustic soda and petroleum residues. The unloading of one of the tanks began, but the cargo was then pumped back on board following a dispute over processing costs, the court heard. An investigation by the Dutch authorities into the composition of the slops was still underway when the ship was granted permission to leave, which prosecutors say violated Dutch law.

If found guilty, Trafigura, APS and Amsterdam face fines of up to €670,000. Three individuals named in the suit, including the Trafigura trader Naeem Ahmed and the captain Sergiy Chertov, face a sentence of six years in prison.

Claude Dauphin, chief executive of Trafigura, argued successfully that he should not be part of the case, although prosecutors have appealed that ruling. The company reached a settlement with the Ivory Coast government in February 2007 of €152m as part of a deal which exempted it from legal proceedings in the West African country.

Last year it agreed in London's High Court to pay £30m in compensation to 31,000 people who claimed to have fallen ill after the slops were dumped around Abidjan by a sub-contractor. Both parties accepted that the waste caused flu-like symptoms and could not have caused more serious injuries or deaths.

The trial, which is expected to last two months, continues.