Trafigura near offer of payouts over Ivorian waste

AMSTERDAM/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - International commodities trader Trafigura said it was close to offering compensation to 31,000 people who said they became ill from toxic waste dumped around the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan.

Trafigura has repeatedly said it is not to blame and that chemical slops disposed of three years ago in Ivory Coast could not have caused the deaths and serious illnesses to which they have been linked.

Trafigura Beheer BV and British law firm Leigh Day & Co, which is representing claimants, said in a joint statement late Wednesday they were in settlement talks, but did not mention a figure.

“It currently appears that this settlement is likely to be acceptable to most, if not all, of the claimants,” Trafigura and Leigh Day & Co said. The class action was scheduled to be heard in an English court in London next month.

In the statement, Trafigura said it “has always denied and continues to deny any liability for events that occurred in the Ivory Coast.”

Martyn Day, lead lawyer and partner at Leigh Day & Co, who was in Abidjan Thursday, said he was putting a global deal to the claimants and was “optimistic as to the outcome of that process.”

“The sum being discussed is based on the range of short-term symptoms claimed by our clients,” he said.

Trafigura, one of the world’s biggest commodities traders in oil and metals, is based in the Netherlands and has significant operations in London.

In 2006, it hired a contractor to dispose of slops from a ship it had chartered, the Probo Koala.

The petrochemical waste was described by Trafigura as residues from gasoline mixed with caustic washings.

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A United Nations report released Wednesday said on the face of it, there was a strong link between the waste and the deaths of at least 15 people and the illness of thousands more.

“We still don’t know -- and we may never know -- the full effect of the dumping,” said Okechukwu Ibeanu, an independent human rights expert for the United Nations, who went on a fact-finding mission to the contaminated site.

“But there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste” from the Probo Koala, he said.

To prove conclusively the waste actually caused death and illness was a “more stringent” matter, he told a news conference in Geneva Thursday.

“The point to be made is that there is still some contention among scientists as to the actual causality,” he said.

Civil and criminal proceedings are ongoing in both Britain and the Netherlands on issues including the chemical composition of the waste, responsibility and compensation, he said.

Trafigura said it had cooperated fully ahead of Ibeanu’s report, which it said was “deeply flawed.”

“Trafigura has always maintained that the dumped slops could never have caused the deaths and serious illnesses which have been alleged,” it said.

Ibeanu said the alleged victims’ symptoms included constant headaches, abdominal discomfort, bleeding from the mouth and some had serious burns.

An Ivorian group said the compensation offer did not go far enough.

“Now they are talking about over 30,000 victims. But for us there are more than that,” Denis Titira Yao, president of the National Federation of Victims of Toxic Waste, told Reuters in Abidjan.

“We also need a long-term resolution because there is still waste in Abidjan that has not been removed and there are zones that still need cleaning up.”

Some 31,000 people have been seeking tens of millions of dollars in compensation for illnesses they say they suffered.

Trafigura agreed to a $198 million out-of-court settlement with the Ivory Coast government in 2007, which exempts it from legal proceedings in the West African country.

Michael Palmer, a spokesman for Athens-based Primary Management Inc, which was the technical manager of the Probo Koala at the time of the incident, told Reuters: “The matter is in Trafigura’s hands. They were the charterers of the vessel.”

Palmer said the vessel was sold later in 2006 to United Arab Emirates-based shipping group Gulf Navigation Holding PJSC.It has been renamed the Gulf Jash, according to Gulf Navigation’s web site.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Daniel Magnowski and David Lewis in Dakar and Jonathan Saul in London; writing by Barbara Lewis; editing by Anthony Barker