Photo: Amnesty International

In August 2006, the oil trading company Trafigura outsourced the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire, resulting in harm to the health of hundreds of thousands of people. The case shows how companies can outsource their high-risk activities in order to avoid responsibility for disposing of their toxic waste safely in order to cut costs.

Photo: Amnesty International

In the early 2000s, Trafigura, headquartered in Singapore, produced approximately 100 gallons of toxic waste on board its ship, the Probo Koala, as a result of the process of refining a dirty petroleum product. Trafigura knew the large amount of waste was hazardous, and tried unsuccessfully to dispose of the cargo in five different countries: Malta, Italy, Gibraltar, the Netherlands and Nigeria. Its attempt to dispose of the waste in Amsterdam caused outrage after residents complained of an intoxicating smell as well as nausea, dizziness and headaches after an initial small amount of waste was unloaded. Trafigura rejected an offer from a Dutch disposal company to properly dispose of the waste in the Netherlands for the equivalent of US$620,000.[1]

Instead, Trafigura relocated the ship from the Netherlands to Côte d’Ivoire, where it outsourced the dumping of the waste to a local company, Compagnie Tommy, for just US$17,000, as reported by Amnesty International.[2] On the night of the 19 August 2006, trucks dumped the toxic waste at 18 locations in and around Côte d’Ivoire’s  main city of Abidjan.[3] Tens of thousands of people experienced a range of similar health problems to those experienced in Amsterdam, including headaches, skin irritations and respiratory weakness. Over 100,000 people sought medical assistance[4] in what was described by local doctors as “the biggest health catastrophe that Côte d’Ivoire has ever known”.[5] An extensive clean-up and decontamination project was required, at enormous public cost for an already poor country. Côte d’Ivoire authorities recorded around 15 deaths as a result of the dumping.[6]

After Dutch authorities began investigating the incident, Trafigura asked Compagnie Tommy to create a fake, revised invoice quoting a much higher disposal price of more than US$100,000.[7] Agents of Trafigura consistently claimed, “the waste was not toxic, so it couldn’t have injured anyone,” and “we didn’t dump the waste, Tommy did”.[8]

The significant harm caused by Trafigura’s decision to outsource the toxic waste disposal at a low cost to an inept company in a foreign jurisdiction in the so-called developing world sparked numerous legal proceedings. Firstly, in Côte d’Ivoire two senior Trafigura executives were arrested immediately after the dumping and were charged with multiple offences. They were later released after the government of Côte d’Ivoire reached a settlement with Trafigura in which the company agreed to pay the government approximately US$195 million.[9] The terms of the settlement were not negotiated in consultation with the victims, in spite of the government agreeing that it “waives once and for all its right to prosecute, claim, or mount any action or proceedings in the present or in the future” against Trafigura parties.[10]

Years after the clean-up Greenpeace and Amnesty International reported that the decontamination had not been fully completed; that the status of the compensation fund remained unclear; and that thousands of people whose health was affected could not access the government compensation scheme.[11] In 2016, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs stated that “many victims also report that they have still not received compensation. It is estimated that only 63% of registered victims received compensation under a February 2007 settlement agreement between Trafigura and the Ivorian Government. Victims’ associations appear not to have been consulted before the agreement was signed.”[12]

In the Netherlands, a criminal case reached the Court of Appeal, where Trafigura was found guilty and fined €1 million for breaching rules on the transport of hazardous waste, contrary to the European Waste Shipment Regulation (259/93/EC); the EU Port Reception Facilities Directive (2000/59/EC); and the MARPOL Convention (73/78) of 1983. On 16 November 2012 a settlement was reached, with the company agreeing to pay a €1 million fine, plus a further €367,000, whereby the criminal proceedings against the company manager were withdrawn by the Dutch Public Prosecutor.[14]

Furthermore, Trafigura’s reputational management in the course of these events sparked widespread concern about the use of legal methods in order to restrict reporting of the case in the public interest.[15]

Trafigura’s outsourcing of toxic waste disposal in this case highlights an attempt to avoid the responsibility and costs of its own high-risk activities, namely the production and disposal of large quantities of toxic waste. While the multinational corporation has ultimately been unsuccessful in its attempt to lay the liability and blame entirely at the feet of the outsourcing company, the problematic nature of the settlement agreements, coupled with permanent and ongoing health issues, have resulted in un-redressable harm for victims.

In its response to a review request made by the Mind the Gap research team, Trafigura expressed deep regret for the impact the incident has had, “both real and perceived” and acknowledged it has learnt from its experiences.[16] The company maintains an overview of relevant developments on its website.[17]

[1] Amnesty International, “Trafigura: A Toxic Journey,” (accessed October 31, 2019).

[2] Amnesty International, “Trafigura.”

[3] BBC News, “Trafigura found guilty of exporting toxic waste,” July 23, 2010, (accessed October 31, 2019).

[4] Trafigura Group, “Toxic wastes: How the 100 Billion is Shared Out,” June 22, 2007,é_rci_21_06_2007_en.pdf (accessed October 31, 2019).

[5] Amnesty International, “Trafigura.”

[6] Trafigura Group, “Toxic wastes.”

[7] Thomas MacManus, “The denial industry: public relations, ‘crisis management’ and corporate crime,” The International Journal of Human Rights 20, no. 6 (August 2016): 785-797, (accessed October 31, 2019).

[8] MacManus, 789.

[9] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Ten years on, the survivors of illegal toxic waste dumping in Côte d’Ivoire remain in the dark,” August 19, 2016, (accessed October 31, 2019).

[10] Amnesty International, Injustice Incorporated: corporate abuses and the human rights to remedy (London: Amnesty International Ltd, 2014), 102, (accessed at October 31, 2019).

[11] Amnesty International and Greenpeace Netherlands, The Toxic Truth: About a company called Trafigura, a ship called the Probo Koala, and the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire (Amsterdam: Greenpeace Netherlands, 2012), 230., (accessed October 31, 2019).

[12] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[13] BBC News.

[14] Functioneel Parket van het Openbaar Ministerie, “Press Release,” November 16, 2012, (accessed October 31, 2019); Amnesty International, ed. Injustice Incorporated: Corporate Abuses and the Human Right to Remedy. London: Amnesty International, 2014. . (accessed June 23, 2020)

[15] On 11 September 2009, Trafigura secured a super injunction in the High Court in the UK preventing The Guardian from making any reference to a leaked report by John Minton, a consultant commissioned by Trafigura in 2006 to investigate the Probo Koala waste issue. See: Amnesty International and Greenpeace Netherlands, The Toxic Truth.

[16] Trafigura. “Email: Review Comments,” February 25, 2020.