In August 2006, hundreds of thousands of people in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, discovered that noxious toxic waste had been dumped in 15 public locations around the city. Poisonous vapors forced thousands of people to flee their homes and prevented businesses from operating. Following the dumping, as many as 17 deaths were linked to toxic waste exposure, and over 100,000 people visited health clinics with complaints ranging from headaches to skin reactions and gastric problems. The public outcry against the incident was so overwhelming that Côte d’Ivoire’s interim government was forced to resign.

Trafigura, a Dutch-based crude oil company, acknowledges hiring a contractor to dump the waste in Cote d’Ivoire, but denies any wrongdoing or liability. Evidence suggests, however, that the company was aware of the potential environmental and public health dangers, as well as the likelihood of inadequate waste disposal in Cote d’Ivoire. In early 2006, Trafigura bought dirty oil from Mexico for an extremely low price, despite knowledge that to be fit for use, the oil had to be cleaned through caustic washings. After purchase, Trafigura completed these required washings onboard its ship, the Probo Koala, generating waste so toxic that few facilities could safely treat it.

In an attempt to limit the costs of disposal of this toxic by-product, Trafigura reportedly misled the Amsterdam Port Services about the content of the waste. When this failed, Trafigura reloaded in order to find a cheaper place to unload. On August 19, 2006, the Probo Koala docked in Abidjan and secured a local contractor to unload the waste. The contractor, Tommy Ltd., had been established only weeks before and had no prior experience handling such caustic waste. Although Tommy Ltd. assured Trafigura that it would be dumping the waste in proper facilities in Akouédo, an area outside of Abidjan, a little research would have revealed that the town had no such facilities or capacity to deal with caustic waste. Trafigura paid Tommy Ltd. U.S. $20,000 for its services —services which, if done properly, would have cost 16 times that price in the Netherlands.

For the past three years, various legal battles — both criminal and civil — have ensued to determine liability and to punish those responsible. Three Trafigura officials, including Trafigura boss Claude Dauphin, spent six months in an Abidjan jail following the incident. They were released shortly after an out-of-court settlement with the Ivoirian government. In 2008, Salomon Ugborugbo, the owner of Tommy Ltd., was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted for poisoning. Essouin Koua Desire, an Ivoirian shipping agent, was sentenced to five years for complicity in poisoning. The State acquitted seven other Ivoirian officials and decided evidence was insufficient for criminal proceedings against Trafigura officials.

In February 2007, without consulting any victims’ associations, the government of Côte d’Ivoire accepted a U.S. $198 million settlement from Trafigura and waived any future State liability actions. The money was designated for cleanup and victim compensation. However, many human rights groups assert that victims have had difficulty registering claims or receiving an amount proportionate to their medical and other related expenses.

On September 17, 2009, victims’ lawyers, the British firm Leigh Day & Co., also settled with Trafigura. Trafigura agreed to a one-time payment of U.S. $1,546 to 31,000 victims, approximately six times less than originally sought. The settlement stated that the victims accepted that the waste was not clearly linked to any deaths or serious injuries and that Trafigura was in no way responsible for illegal dumping by Tommy Ltd.

The 4,500-member Toxic Waste Victims’ Association, created in the aftermath of the dumping incident, claimed that the settlement was disappointing because the majority of victims’ medical costs were far higher than U.S. $1,546. While no further legal action can be brought against Trafigura in Côte d’Ivoire, a 20,000 person class-action suit is ongoing in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the Dutch government has chosen not to pursue any legal action against Claude Dauphin.

Although cleanup efforts in Abidjan began in September 2006, some sites remain contaminated. The Special Rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Council reports that the French company Tredi has successfully decontaminated eight dump sites, but additional sites remain unsafe. Prior to and since the Côte d’Ivoire incident, Trafigura has been linked with questionable business dealings in Iraq, Norway, and Jamaica.