Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Trafigura, Abidjan, Toxic waste, Ilness, "Proof".

Last May, Newsnight did a piece about the Trafigura pollution scandal.

Leigh Day were solicitors for the injured people in Abidjan. They got a small amount of compensation, out of court, for each victim but last month they seem to have agreed with Trafigura that nobody died. The statement is here.

Leigh Day are respected and experienced lawyers in this area, but my gut instinct is that they have been too quick to accept the conclusions of the "20+ independent experts in shipping, chemistry, modelling, toxicology, tropical medicine, veterinary science and psychiatry have been
appointed to consider all the issues relating to those events.

Leigh Day probably realised that Trafigura were going to keep them in court for years, and obviously the people of Abidjan were not going to be able to pay them more than a few peanuts per day.

The joint statement says:

These independent experts are unable to identify a link between exposure to
the chemicals released from the slops and deaths, miscarriages, still births,
birth defects, loss of visual acuity or other serious and chronic injuries. Leigh
Day and Co, 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 key phrase is in bold above.

Identifying a link between an illness and a toxin is difficult in science. It took more than a century for us to identify the link between asbestos and mesothelioma. It took 20 years and 20,000 scientific papers to identify the link between smoking and lung cancer.

The common phrase is "There is no proven link". This is a gift to the polluter, because in science, nothing is ever proven. The best status a theory can achieve is not-yet-disproven.

People find this surprising, but this is the very nature of science: it questions everything, over and over, by experimentation.

So I am sceptical that there is no link between the Trafigura waste and the illness experienced by the people of Abidjan.

First, we need to look at the evidence we have so far. These "experts" will have done reports. Leigh Day will have them.

I asked Leigh Day if we can see them, and as expected, the answer was that the documents are the property of Trafigura, who will not let them into the public domain where they can be assessed. This means that the information that they hold has no scientific status, since one of the criteria for science is that it is open to scrutiny from other scientists.

In that case, we will just have to act as if that the toxic waste did indeed cause serious health problems, until Trafigura reveals any evidence that it may have to the contrary.

Meanwhile, we can read the Minton Report on Wikileaks (go to the download link under the introductory paragraphs).

Wikileaks says:
Following press reportage about dumping off the coast of Africa, Waterson & Hicks, a UK law firm acting for Trafigura, a multi-national oil and commodity trader, ordered and received this confidential report (the so-called "Minton report") into toxic dumping practices by its client along and on the Ivory Coast.

Here's the key passage:

9.3 The compounds listed above are capable of causing severe human health effects through inhalation and ingestion. These include headaches, breathing difficulties, nausea, eye irritation, skin ulceration, unconsciousness and death. There would also be a strong and unpleasant odour over a large area. All of these effects were as reported in this incident.

9.4 Some of these symptoms may only be experienced by those in direct contact with the waste whilst others are a consequence of gas inhalation. Some symptoms such as nausea may be a result of exposure to low levels of foul smelling fumes.

9.5 Other factors such as any treatment method adopted by the disposal contractor or the presence of other chemical waste on the site may have exacerbated the problem.

9.5 Under Council Directive 1999131/EC, disposal of this waste onto landfill sites would be forbidden in a European member state.

I hope that is clear. Trafigura's own lawyers got this message, and must have passed it on. No wonder Trafigura did not want it publicised. So they took action to try to hush it up, and got the Streisand Effect.

We have won a battle, but there is a war to be won.

Trafigura will be hoping that we all go home now, patting ourselves on our collective backs.
We should be working for
(a) a change in libel laws, and
(b) criminal prosecution of Trafigura, and
(c) regulations covering activities of multinational corporations.

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