Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Payments in Ivoirian Toxic Dumping Case Disputed

Via NY Times -

Thousands of victims of one of the worst toxic dumping scandals in years could lose their hard-won settlement thanks to maneuverings by a shadowy but “influential” figure in Ivory Coast, where the dumping occurred, the victims’ lawyer said Wednesday.

Up to $45 million in compensation is at stake, intended for about 30,000 victims of an oil-based sludge surreptitiously dumped around Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital, in 2006. The tanker’s poisonous shipment has become notorious as a kind of African Bhopal, an example of a multinational corporation’s negligence in the third world.

The waste was shipped by Trafigura, an international commodities trading giant. About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and abdominal pains, and at least 15 died. All had apparently been poisoned by the toxic brew of gasoline and caustic soda, refining byproducts dumped by Trafigura’s contractor.

The company agreed to pay the Ivorian government about $200 million in 2007, then settled separately with the victims in September of this year. But now the money, frozen in a local bank, has been claimed by a largely self-appointed community representative named Claude Gohourou. In recent weeks, the Ivorian judiciary has sided with him, according to the London law firm Leigh Day & Company, which represents the victims.

Behind the representative is “a highly influential figure within Ivorian judicial and financial circles,” who offered to clear up the roadblocks to the money’s distribution “if I agreed to the interest being paid to him,” Martyn Day, senior partner of Leigh Day, said in a statement filed in British courts Wednesday. “I of course refused to have anything to do with such blatant corruption.”

Mr. Day said he did not know the identity of the “influential figure” because his associates in Ivory Coast were “too nervous” to reveal it. But in an interview he said there was a real risk that millions of dollars destined for the victims would simply disappear into undeserving pockets. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Day said. “Mr. Big is clearly pretty big. The whole scene makes me feel extremely nervous that our claimants will never see a penny of their damages.”

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