AMSTERDAM – AMSTERDAM (AP) — Oil trading company Trafigura was fined €1 million ($1.28 million) Friday for exporting hazardous waste that allegedly left 15 people dead and thousands ill in Ivory Coast. It was the first time the company had been convicted in the environmental scandal.
Presiding Judge Frans Bauduin agreed with prosecutors who accused Trafigura Beheer BV in a trial last month of putting profits ahead of safety by hiding the waste in a ship that docked in Amsterdam in 2006 and then exporting it illegally to the African country, where it was dumped around the capital by a contractor.
Trafigura chose to get rid of the waste cheaply "for commercial reasons," he said. The company Trafigura employed in Abidjan charged US$35 (€27.24) per ton of waste, while in Amsterdam it would have cost €750 ($963.75) per ton, the court said.
Trafigura insists the waste could not have caused serious illness or deaths and has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying it was not responsible for the dumping. The company said it will study the verdicts "with a view to appeal."
It paid €152 million to Ivory Coast in 2007 to help clean up and last year agreed to a settlement in Britain with 30,000 Abidjan residents who claimed the waste made them ill and who received $1,500 compensation checks
Under the British settlement, all sides agreed the waste could only have caused minor ailments. But the U.N.'s top expert on toxic waste, Okechukwu Ibeanu, said in a 2009 report that "there seems to be strong ... evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala" ship, which was chartered by Trafigura.
Ibeanu said 15 people died and 69 were hospitalized after the waste was offloaded in Abidjan in August 2006.
Trafigura paid Compagnie Tommy, a contractor in Abidjan, to dispose of the ship's waste. On the night of Aug. 17, 2006, Tommy used trucks to dump waste at 17 sites in the city. Tommy's owner, Nigerian Salomon Ugborugbo, was sentenced in Ivory Coast to 20 years for poisoning. Trafigura says it is not responsible for Tommy's actions.
Prosecutors had asked for a fine of €2 million ($2.57 million) for Trafigura. The company was cleared of forgery for allegedly misreporting the nature of the waste before the ship docked in the Netherlands.
"While Trafigura is pleased to have been acquitted of the charge of forgery it is disappointed by the judges' ruling on the other two, which it believes to be incorrect," the company said in a statement.
Amnesty International welcomed the verdicts.
"This judgment appears damning given Trafigura's previous denials of any wrongdoing, said Benedetta Lacey, a special adviser at the human rights group.
Another Trafigura lawyer, Michael Wladimiroff, argued that the conviction for exporting waste to Ivory Coast was based on the court's decision to apply the wrong waste management treaty.
Wladimiroff said Trafigura argued that the Marine Pollution Treaty applied and that under that treaty it was legal to export the waste to Ivory Coast. The court decided a different treaty applied, under which sending the waste to Abidjan was illegal.
In Ivory Coast, the ruling was greeted as a moral victory because Trafigura has never admitted to any wrongdoing.
"Finally, Trafigura has been called out in a court of law," said Eliance Kouassi, president of the National Federation of Toxic Waste Victims in Ivory Coast. "It's a real victory for us," he said.
Amsterdam District Court also convicted Trafigura employee Naeem Ahmed for leading the effort to conceal the waste's dangerous nature when it was taken to Amsterdam.
Ahmed was fined €25,000 ($32,125) and given a six-month suspended sentence, meaning he will not serve prison time unless he commits another crime within two years.
"Trafigura continues to maintain that Naeem did nothing wrong and will provide him and his legal team with whatever legal assistance they may require," the company said.
The Ukrainian captain of the Probo Koala ship that carried the waste, Sergiy Chertov, also was convicted and sentenced to a five-month suspended prison term for the same offense and forgery, for concealing the nature of the waste in a written declaration.
The ship had begun unloading waste "slops" from one of its tanks in Amsterdam, but then had them pumped back aboard after a dispute over processing costs.
An investigation into the composition of the slops was still under way when the ship was granted permission to leave, which prosecutors say violated Dutch law.
Amsterdam Port Services and its director Evert Uittenbosch were cleared of charges of leaving dangerous waste in the hands of someone not qualified to process it. Judges also dismissed charges against the Amsterdam municipality, saying it was immune from prosecution as it was exercising its executive functions.
Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.
(This version corrects amount Trafigura paid to Ivory Coast.)