A Dutch-based oil trading company paid $197 million to secure the release of three executives from an Ivory Coast prison and settle claims that it dumped toxic waste that killed at least 10 people in the West African nation.
Greenpeace and other environmental organizations said the case is an example of how Africa is routinely used as a dumping ground for waste generated by wealthy nations.
Trafigura Beheer BV continues to deny wrongdoing, saying the waste unloaded in August from a ship in the Ivory Coast port city of Abidjan was not toxic. But a U.N. report found it contained chemicals that are lethal in high concentrations.
The Dutch government is investigating whether the Probo Koala should have been allowed to leave Amsterdam in July after authorities found the ship's cargo was larger than expected and appeared unusually noxious.
Officials in the Ivory Coast said late Tuesday that Trafigura agreed to pay the government $197 million to settle the dispute and obtain the executives' release. The company confirmed the settlement in a statement Wednesday that announced its executives had been freed.
Claude Dauphin, Jean-Pierre Valentini and Nzi Kablan had been jailed in Abidjan since Sept. 18, 2006.
"Trafigura and the government of Ivory Coast dismiss any responsibility for the happenings in August emphatically," the company said in a statement. "Of course, Trafigura takes its social role as a player in the world market very seriously and therefore wants to support the government financially in order to offer its citizens a better health situation."
Disposal plant to be built
Trafigura said part of the money would be used to finance an independent environmental investigation in which "the role of all involved will be judged." It was unclear how the investigation could be independent with the company funding it.
Part of the settlement money also will go to the construction of a new waste disposal plant and a hospital, Trafigura said.
"It's a good agreement that will allow the state to compensate the victims," Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo told journalists late Tuesday.
Trafigura, registered in Almere, Netherlands with physical headquarters in London, said it intended to continue doing business in Ivory Coast.
A Dutch company initially had agreed to dispose of the waste for $15,500, but when it raised the price to $650,000, Trafigura refused to pay, and the Probo Koala left. The ship traveled on to Estonia where it turned down an offer to dispose of the waste for $260,000.
Trafigura then looked to Africa, where it found a local company in Ivory Coast called Tommy that agreed to dispose of the waste for roughly the original price. Trafigura said Tommy had proper government papers for the disposal.
What it didn't have, however, were the facilities.
No company in Ivory Coast has such facilities, said Safiatou Ba N'daw, who heads an Ivorian government committee set up to deal with the crisis.
Government: 528 tons dumped
Ivorian officials and witnesses say more than a dozen trucks contracted by Tommy simply poured 528 tons of the waste at 17 public sites around Abidjan after midnight Aug. 19.
People woke to an intense stench like that of rotten eggs, and thousands sought medical help for symptoms such as stinging eyes and bleeding noses. At least 10 people died.
Trafigura says the waste it offloaded was routine material derived from washing its oil tanks, including caustic soda, used as a cleaning agent, and petrochemical residues.
Tests later showed the sludge found on the ground contained hydrogen sulfide, a potent poison that, particularly in confined spaces, can cause blackouts, respiratory failure and death.
A French company eventually cleaned up the waste, which was transported to a plant in France for disposal.