Sunday, 21 March 2010

Trafigura: Beyond Abidjan

All must know the story of Trafigura, the cheap Mexican coker naphtha which they had caustic washed on the Probo Koala and the waste product from that process which was dumped illegally by Company Tommy in Abidjan.  The story of this coker naphtha continues beyond the Abidjan incident to show the path of the coker naphtha from Mexico, to Norway, Estonia and then on to West Africa as gasoline.

I have not uncovered any new sources of information but I have pulled together stories from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and from Afrol News.  The 5 base articles are listed below and are available as a pdf file here.

1  Vest Tank sweetened coker gasoline
2  A small pawn in the game
3  Coker gasoline – low quality
4  Bad gasoline trade ring to West Africa exposed
5  Dangerous gasoline offloaded in Nigeria, Ghana

Normally I’d be a bit worried that Trafigura might take a tough line with me but, given that this information has been available online for a long time, I’m not worried.  Even better insurance is that I emailed Trafigura and their PR company  (Bell-Pottinger) in mid-February saying,

All 5 articles have been available online for sometime and, so, I imagine that Trafigura is unconcerned about my repeating statements made within these articles.  Can you confirm that this is so?  Also do you have any comments to make on the content of any or all of these articles which you want me consider including in my post?
Should you not get back in touch with me before I post I will assume that you have no concerns about my repeating any statement in these articles and that Trafigura has no comment of its own to make.”

I haven’t heard from them in over a month ergo they have no worries and no comments.  I’ve put my emails online too …. just in case.  You’ll find them here.

Now to the story.

We start not at the beginning but on 24 May 2007 in the small Norwegian town of Slovag (population < 1000) when

a tank belonging to the enterprise Vest Tank in Sløvåg municipality exploded.  The explosion generated an intense sulphurous stench, which has caused illness among the local population ever since. 

This was the starting point for NRK to investigate.

Through agreements with major foreign operators, the enterprise Vest Tank’s tank facility in Sløvåg became an important link in an international production of, and trade with, extremely low quality gasoline. The final product was of such poor quality that it was illegal to sell in Europe. Instead, this bad gasoline was shipped to West Africa. Norwegian authorities proved to be completely unaware of these activities.

During 2006 and 2007 Trafigura shipped 150,000 tons (6 shipments) of Mexican coker gasoline to Vest Tank who caustic washed the material, as was done on board the Probo Koala, giving sweetened gasoline plus aqueous waste.  I’ll come back to the sweetened gasoline later but, for now, I concentrate on the waste. According to NRK,

On May 24, Tank 3 exploded. The reason was a Vest Tank blunder. They intended to get rid of caustic material and sulphur left at the bottom of the tank. By pumping in hydrochloric acid, the waste was supposed to be transformed into salt and water. Instead, a carbon filter was ignited, and the tank blew up. The sulphur contained in all the ship cargoes was released, causing continuous illness among the local inhabitants.”

According to NRK, the relevant Norwegian authorities were unaware of the activities at Sløvåg.

NRK claim that waste from the sweetening process was exported from Sløvåg describing how a ship laden with 30,000 tons of gasoline from England took on 5400 tons of Sløvåg desulphurisation waste, mixed the two products and sailed to West Africa.

A smart way of getting rid of waste by incorporating it into another product!

NRK state that it is illegal to export such waste from Europe to developing countries.  I wonder what is the legal position when the waste, whose export would otherwise be illegal, is mixed to make another product whose export is legal.  I suspect Trafigura may be in the clear legally on this point.

What of the sweetened product?  NRK explains,

After the sweetening in Sløvåg, five of the six ships headed for the seaport town of Paldiski in Estonia. In Paldiski, they discharged their cargoes at the terminal of the oil company Alexela, a company partly owned by Trafigura. Incidentally, Alexela bought up Vest Tank in Sløvåg after the explosion. In Paldiski, the cargo was unloaded, and the Estonian customs service relate that a substance designed to increase the octane level is mixed into the gasoline. The unusable residue product coker gasoline had now turned into low quality gasoline.
The Estonian customs state that the quality is so low, it renders it illegal to sell in Europe. The gasoline is reloaded on board a ship, then dispatched to West Africa. In Europe, the maximum approved sulphur level in gasoline is 50 ppm. In West Africa, 5000 ppm is the approved limit

Clearly there is nothing illegal in producing fuel of a standard which is acceptable in some markets but not in others.  The Afrol articles, later, have more to say about legality.

Experts consulted by NRK claim that gasoline made by the process described above is

so poor that it changes composition when exposed to sunlight. It has to go through several processes in a refinery in order to end up as an acceptable product.

NRK’s last statement is,

By means of the sweetening in Sløvåg and octane increasing in Estonia, Trafigura gained an acceptable gasoline for the African market. Coker gasoline from the USA, cleansed and processed in Sløvåg and Paldiski, ended up in West Africa.”

Afrol take up the story,

West Africans complaining about deteriorating quality of gasoline marketed in their country have proven to be right. A network to export illegal poor quality fuel into West Africa, headed by Trafigura, the company behind the toxic scandal in Côte d'Ivoire, is being exposed in Europe. A chemical tank explosion in a remote Norwegian fiord; a dubious refinery in Estonia without imports and exports; the intoxication of shipping inspectors in the Netherlands; the great toxic scandal in Côte d'Ivoire; and rising frustration and protests among car owners all over West Africa - all tracks lead back to the Dutch-registered giant shipping company Trafigura.”

When I copied this extract I was glad that I had given Trafigura the opportunity to read, to comment and to warn me off.

Afrol continue,

An entire cynical industry has developed to produce dangerous low octane gasoline with very high sulphur values from waste products, smuggling it through European facilities, shipping it in great tankers to West Africa, where shipments are brought  ashore by smaller vessels, bribing local inspectors to accept illegal fuel standards.”


“Upon arrival in the Gulf of Guinea, the giant Trafigura vessels anchor up off the coast to handle pre-arranged deals with local traders. Smaller vessels transport the fuel onshore. In the 'NRK' documentary, sales to Côte d'Ivoire, Togo and Cameroon were especially mentioned.  In an interview with 'NRK', Dutch citizen Arend van Campen told how he managed to bring poor fuels onshore in West Africa when earlier working as the representative of the supplier onboard Trafigura vessels. If authorities take samples and find that qualities are not according to specifications, the representative "would be able to hopefully convince them to accept the cargo anyway .. by making them change their mind," Mr van Campen said. He claimed never to have bribed any West African inspector, but said this could happen on such transports.”

I must make clear here there is nothing in Mr van Campen’s statement which states as fact, nor even implies, that anyone connected with Trafigura was involved in any bribing of any officials.

Very importantly the article states,

The extension of this speculative trade is yet to be exposed.”

The second Afrol article is a speculative piece.

A vessel from the shipping company Trafigura, "High Land", is currently in the Nigerian port of Lagos, loading off what is allegedly [Calum’s emphasis] dangerous and poor gasoline, aimed at West African consumers. The vessels last stop was in Tema, Ghana, where it probably also loaded off bad gasoline. 

Afrol News has been given documentation about the movements of the giant vessel "High Land", flying the Marshall Islands' flag and owned by the Dutch-registered company Trafigura, a giant shipping company accused of being responsible for the toxic scandal in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. The vessel on 27 February this year left the Estonian town Paldiski. On other occasions, Norwegian state broadcaster 'NRK' has documented, Trafigura vessels have used a Paldiski-based chemical plant to chemically manipulate waste products from oil production to produce a fuel-like substance marketed as gasoline for vehicles in West Africa. Most earlier transports from Paldiski to West Africa have gone directly to the port of Lomé, Togo. There, smaller vessels typically have offloaded quantities of 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes of the fuel, transporting it to neighbour countries in West Africa such as Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire, where local inspectors are manipulated into accepting the load as "gasoline" for the local market.”

and they say

Also, it is expected that several other supply chains exist to this lucrative trade.”

Trafigura, according to afrol News, say that,

Trafigura, for its sake, claims it is victim to “defamation” following the documentary. In a written statement, the Dutch company points out that it “does not engage in illegal operations and requires that its subcontractors and chartered vessels do not do so either,” adding that it still remains to be proven the company has any responsibility for the Côte d'Ivoire toxic disaster.

Trafigura, through their spokesperson, Neil Cameron of Bell-Pottinger, said,

all leading global oil traders prepare different gasoline specifications to suit the needs of different markets around the world,"

and so focus should not rest solely on Trafigura. 

He said that allegations of misconduct, 

"in relation to imports of gasoline into West Africa"  were "utterly without foundation,".


The pathways uncovered by these reporters show how Trafigura moved from very cheap coker naphtha to what they hoped would make millions.

Trafigura are in the spotlight now but I would guess that many many companies in different industries see equivalent methods of increasing profits.  If only we could shine a light on all of them.

Thank you to all who have opened up this affair for us to see.  You have done us a great service.


  1. Calum. More great stuff. I wonder whsat there is with Trafigura and Jamaica

  2. I've skim read the Jamaica stuff. A bit more research is needed.

    I think your keyboard is dyslexic!

  3. Extraordinary!