The long-suppressed report on oil waste dumping in Ivory Coast is out at last. The prestigeous Guardian newspaper released the Minton report after the oil trading firm Trafigura gave up its efforts to prevent the publication of the report.
In 2006 Trafigura, a privately-owned, Dutch-registered company that has offices in London, had chartered a tanker, the Probo Koala, to carry a cargo of cheap, dirty petrol known as coker gasoline that it hoped to clean up for a profit.
AdvertisementAfter using caustic soda and a catalyst to remove sulphur from the fuel, it was left with waste products known as slops that were to be disposed of in Amsterdam. But Trafigura was told that the cost of handling the foul-smelling residue would be far higher than initially thought.
The waste was pumped back onto the ship and in August taken to Abidjan, the biggest city in Ivory Coast, where a local contractor called Compagnie Tommy unloaded it and dumped it at as many as 18 landfill sites across the city at night.
Within days there were reports that locals had suffered injuries from exposure to the dumped waste, with a UN official claiming recently that 108,000 had fallen ill.
Alleged victims came together to launch Britain's largest ever class action against the oil firm, which was due to be heard at the High Court in London.
But last month Trafigura agreed an out-of-court settlement that will offer about £950 compensation to each of 31,000 people without accepting liability.
Trafigura not only did not accept liability for the massive pollution, but it also sought to suppress a study it had commissioned just weeks after the incident.
The firm went on to obtain an injunction against the Guardian, preventing the paper from reporting a question tabled on Monday by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly.
Farrelly's question was about the implications for press freedom of an order obtained by Trafigura preventing the Guardian and other media from publishing the Minton report on the dumping.
But overnight numerous users of the social networking site Twitter posted details of Farrelly's question and later the full text was published on two prominent blogs as well as in the magazine Private Eye.
Carter-Ruck withdrew its gagging attempt as the Guardian was about to challenge its stance, with the backing of other national newspapers.
The Minton report, commissioned in 2006 from the London-based firm's scientific consultants, said that based on the "limited" information they had been given Trafigura's oil waste, dumped cheaply the month before in a city in Ivory Coast, was potentially toxic, and "capable of causing severe human health effects".
The study said early reports of large scale medical problems among the inhabitants of Abidjan, were consistent with a release of a cloud of potentially lethal hydrogen sulphide gas over the city. The effects could have included severe burns to the skin and lungs, eye damage, permanent ulceration, coma and death.
It warned that the sulphur chemicals could break down in the environment and release hydrogen sulphide, a "highly toxic" gas that could kill.
But Trafigura disputes the content of the report, which it says was left unfinished after a more detailed investigation of the actual slops by the Netherlands Forensic Institute.
The oil firm says hydrogen sulphide was not present in the dumped waste.
A joint statement issued by both sides following the out of court settlement last month said that more than twenty independent experts from a number of fields have investigated the incident.
"These independent experts are unable to identify a link between exposure to the chemicals released from the slops and dealths, miscarriages, still births, birth defects, loss of visual acuity or other serious and chronic injuries. Leigh Day and Co, [who represented the victims] in the light of the expert evidence now acknowledge that the slops could at worst have caused a range of short term low level flu-like symptoms and anxiety," the statment asserted.
Trafigura has already paid more than £100m to the Ivory Coast authorities for a clean-up operation and still faces court action in Amsterdam for the alleged illegal export of toxic waste.
Soon after the incident Trafigura's lawyers commissioned Minton, Treharne & Davies, a firm of Wales-based scientific analysts, to look into the "potential composition" of the slops discharged from the ship.
The report was not made public by Trafigura, which maintains that the slops could not have caused the illness reported.
But a leaked copy of the Minton report found its way into the hands of journalists from The Guardian newspaper.