As I reported last night, Carter-Ruck, one of a number of British law firms that specialise in so-called ‘media management’ – i.e. firing off libel writs and injunctions at the press to suppress adverse information about their wealthy clients – obtained an injunction which prevents the Guardian newspaper from reporting proceedings in parliament, specifically, it’s thought this question tabled by Paul Farrelly MP:
61. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura. (293006).
Trafigura are an oil-trading company who, according to press reports, are implicated in the illegal dumping of toxic waste (crude oil residues) on the African coast, as a result of which the company has apparently has paid compensation for injuries and health problems alleged caused by this waste to a reported 31,000 Ivoirians in an out-of-court settlement.
The Minton Report referred to in Farrelly’s question, was ordered and obtained by Waterson & Hicks, another UK law firm acting for Trafigura and it appears to contain evidence of number of incidents in which Trafigura’s ships dumped toxic waste on the West African coast.
It’s the existence and contents of this report, which can now be freely obtained from Wikileaks, that Carter-Ruck appear to attempting to suppress as part of a defamation action against the Guardian in which Trafigura are, apparently, seeking to assert that any suggest that this waste was dumped cheaply and could have caused death and serious injuries is “untrue” and “gravely defamatory”.
According to the report, Trafigura’s ship, MT Probo Koala, was carrying a cargo of coker naptha, which was ‘sweetened’ on board the ship to reduce its sulphur content, producing a blendstock which would, later, be used to produce gasoline.
The ‘sweetening’ process, in this case, was the caustic washing of the naptha using a catalyst and large quantity of concentrated sodium hydroxide, i.e. caustic soda, which generated a quantity of slops which contained the caustic soda, catalyst and a quantity of treated naptha, and it was these slops that appear to have dumped on a landfill in Abidjan.
When caustic washing of this kind is carried out at a refinery, the concentration of sodium hydroxide is carefully controlled to result in the most efficient possible washing of sulphur compounds out of the naptha, but the report indicates that, in this case, a much higher concentration was used on board the tanker making it highly likely that there would be significantly higher levels of sulphur compounds in the slops that would usually be found in refinery-produced waste.
That’s bad enough on its own but what the report also raises is the possibility that the company that actually did the dumping on behalf of Trafigura’s vessel might reasonably have been expected to have attempted to neutralise the sodium hydroxide content of the slop using acid, which makes sense in terms of basic chemistry – caustic soda is highly alkaline – but would, unfortunately, contribute to the breakdown of the various sulphur compounds in the naptha element of the slops, makingit more likely that quantites of hydrogen sulphide gas would be released once it had been dumped.
Even without going into all the detail, there are a couple of very obvious problems that you can foresee arising from dumping this crap on a landfill.
The concentrated sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) is one, as anyone coming into contact with it on the waste dump would be likely to suffer severe chemical burns to the skin or lungs, from vapour inhalation, and as, I’m afraid to say, scavenging from waste dumps is not that uncommon a practice in the developing world… Do I really need to spell out the rest?
The other problem lies in the sulphur compounds in the naptha, some of which would, when dumped, break down and release hydrogen sulphide gas.
Now, at low concentrations, hydrogen sulphide can be readily detected by its characteristic ‘rotten eggs’ smell, which is unpleasant by not particularly dangerous.
At high concentrations, however, that smell isn’t present and if the gas get into your lungs or your eyes it will react with the water molecules present to form sulphuric acid.
Once you understand that very basic bit of chemistry – and this is first year GSCE stuff – you can fully appreciate why the report notes that the potential health problems arising from the dumping of this waste include nausea, breathing difficulties, vomiting and good old diarrhea.
Section three of the report sets out a much list of the likely chemical constituents of these slops and their potential impact on the environment and on the health of people coming into contact with them, and it doesn’t make pleasant reading.
That, it seems, is what Trafigura don’t want us to know, that the toxic crap that was dumped in Abidjan was certain capable of causing the adverse health effects reported, hence it concludes that:
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 unpleasant odour over a large area. All of these effects were as reported in this incident.