Tuesday 13 October 2009

For the first time in history . . . and it's to protect liars in oil?

Eighty-odd years ago, when the woman who brought social work and the concept of co-operative problem solving to Iran was a little girl, it was known even to young children that real news would not be heard through the press, but only by gossip and rumours. Henceforth, socialising - though only among your extended family if you were respectable - was the only way to hear what the government was up to. The ultimate reason for this whispering, frightened atmosphere was oil.

Iran's oil, Sattareh Farman Farmaian explains in her book "Daughter of Persia", was being exploited by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, and very few jobs and very little money from this was allowed to reach any Iranians. To protect their oil, the British had installed Reza Shah to act as military dictator - just as Iran had been painstakingly developing a democracy, because its own aristocracy had been studying the European governments, and were willing to face a brief time of bloodshed and overcome 3,000 years of absolute power from the monarchy to make this change. The invaders threw all that away so they could have the oil. And suddenly I wondered if oil's dark shadow still has a similar effect today.

I had nice plans for this evening: to catch up on a lot of work I should be doing at the zoo, to fill out yet another job application form and to play Roller Coaster Tycoon for hours - which were scuppered by the astonishing news that the Guardian "is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament".

"Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found," this article reports.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations."

Jack of Kent remarks that this is really like a crossword puzzle. "After all, the parliamentary website is not that difficult to search if you are familiar with it," he remarks. "And published order papers are in turn not difficult to search."

He declines to reveal his sources: good man, considering what happened to Nightjack. Not knowing much about this kind of thing, I had to rely on Twitter - thank goodness that is not yet a machine of libel paranoia. "OK, this is *seriously* out of hand now," said Ben Goldacre. Then I noticed a lot of re-tweets from @dontgetfooled, who provides some highly interesting links plus this appeal:
Bloggers, pls help beat this attack on free speech. Have published banned Parliamentary Question here: http://tr.im/Bzzz
I do so with pleasure, esteemed fellow blogger. Here is the question:
N 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.
Dontgetfooled has two good web links, here and here. Guido Fawkes also suggests that this is the banned question.

As background, the case is about Trafigura, who had some shiploads of oil mixed with sulphurous compounds to purify. Amsterdam offered to do this purifying, but Trafigura declined, and instead mixed a solution of caustic sodium hydroxide in with the oil; this allowed the oil to rise to the top and the sodium hydroxide plus contaminants solution to fall to the bottom of the tank - a horrendous solution which they then dumped in the dead of night on the Ivory Coast, leading to the illness of the entire local population, three deaths, and many miscarriages. Trafigura claim that the substance was "smelly, but not dangerous" - but are being sued because evidence is showing now that they knew all along that the sludge was highly toxic.

A basic knowledge of chemistry alone, of course, will tell you that mercaptans and other sulphurous compounds which were in the oil are so smelly that they can induce vomiting, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms, and that sodium hydroxide solution is very dangerous indeed.

The Guardian and Newsnight both describe the story. There is another much-talked-about source that seemed un-Google-able - the "Minton Report". Good old @dontgetfooled seems to have found a letter signed by a John Minton which basically goes through the chemistry, Trafigura's wrongdoings, and how to deal with such sludge - not as Trafigura dealt with it. Worth a read: the chemistry is not far above school level!

But what has taken me most of the night was this document, assembled by those prosecuting Trafigura now. This is correspondence - e-mails and faxes - among Trafigura employees debating what to do with the toxic waste, including their rejection of Amsterdam's clean-up offer and recommendations. I do not know if the two documents will be available online forever. Trafigura or their lawyers may insist on them being taken down. I don't know. Anyway, download them.

I have read and re-read the e-mail collection and I must admit defeat by the prospect of offering you a comprehensive review. Perhaps someone with the know-how can shed more light.

Nevertheless, a few statements do jump out at me. There are references to the "PMI shit" which the people want to get rid of. They veto getting it disposed of properly at Amsterdam because of the cost; they also rule out leaving their boats at Milford Haven for the same reason (a shiver went through me at this, for Milford Haven is nearly on my own doorstep - and it is very expensive to moor there, no doubt about it) and opt to "spend some of our hard-earned cash" on leaving the boats at Gibraltar. After a little reading around, I realised that the purpose of sitting around at Gibraltar was to do their own little DIY-purification. My God, they might have been doing it at Milford under our noses. Incidentally, Milford has no night fire service, an incredibly wise economy in a rural area with oil refineries and one of Britain's few deep-sea ports. In any case I'm getting off the subject. They don't want to pay to get it treated properly, so this is what they did instead.

On Page 10, someone circulates an odour report, which they "desperately need for the govt guy" - it begins with the fact that odours are causing "distress" to local people and workers (they don't mention health effects); the report briefly describes each ship, and offers solutions. However, the reader of the document asks that the paragraph explaining the likely cause of the problem (di-enes) be removed; the writer does so. No reason is offered or sought. I don't expect they needed to, amongst themselves.

On page 21 someone is asked to outline the exact objection to discharge in Nigeria. The response is as follows:

"Lagos does not have proper de-slopping facilities as was shown by the fact that a barge was supplied and they wanted the Master to pump the slop overboard into an open tank, which he refused to do. The receiver of the slop may also try to sell it in the local market which has potential implications on us.

More importantly from my point of view is that Lagos is notorious for cargo theft with collusion by ship's Masters, and so any kind of ancillary operation such as this should only take place after all cargo on board has been discharged."

The first paragraph makes it clear that they knew the waste was toxic. As for the second, it took me a while to work out exactly what they didn't want stolen. Is there a possibility that they wanted to sell the oil and let the toxic sludge be stolen, or am I misreading things?

On page 23 is the brief fax:

"Dude, please call CD.

I spoke to him yesterday and he said NO to any such operation in Nigeria [i.e. discharging the slops, preferably offshore].

We go to Lome, charter a barge and bring it back to Nigeria for Daddo under a different name."

I don't think there's any misreading the intentions expressed here!

As we know now, they did sell the oil - and they simply dumped the sludge at the bottom. I'm slightly bewildered by the whole thing, though. The cat's out of the bag. Newsnight and the Guardian have made it clear what they've done. Why are they still so keen to stop the public and the press from getting at the Parliament bit?

Perhaps they feel they still have a stake. Perhaps we are so dependent on oil that it does not matter what the press and public say, but it still does matter what we hear from the higher powers. Perhaps their hope is that, without the press present, the answer to the question can amount to "We won't protect whistleblowers, and we'll give Trafigura our secret support, we don't care about people or the environment, it's money that matters." . . . Or perhaps the hidden question is something different altogether?

It is frightening how these giant corporations can influence our government beyond what even their own fears of terrorism and its own citizens' privacy, liberty, and abilities to get things done without endless red tape, can do. That is to say, such injunctions have evidently not even been made while debating terror bills and how to force ID cards on us. Yet the government, or a judge, obeys this order to stay silent even when the powerful business is already in disgrace . . . Is this a step towards blocking the press from parliament? Or is it a step to making corporations, in the end, our true governments?

Dawn is now nearing; I'm alone in this messy blue-walled room with whirring computers, a few infuriating flies, and a racing mind. I'm frustrated by how little I know, though expect several other bloggers to have found out and deduced far more (and would seriously appreciate it if you could leave a comment with all the links you could find). I start to think of how the blogosphere might have to take over from the newspapers in passing around the news that really matters, as we did for Simon Singh. And then how quickly the government will leap to silence us, too. I begin to fantasise about being arrested for publishing this, or for future posts or documents I download and upload; the choice of silence or arrest. While half of me knows this is just a piece of ludicrous red tape imposed by the privileged, the other half wanders on through the small hours, choosing between revealing secrets and avoiding arrest, and thinks: it's times like these that you know who you are. Am I just naive, to prefer arrest to obedient silence? Probably. Do I write this because I don't believe it'll ever happen? Or is there something to my memories of simply shutting out what hurt me at school and work when the bullies came - the way I simply shut down and didn't even feel it when I was crushed by crowds, hit on the head, or shouted at for my best efforts? Will we have to learn to shut out prison the same way?

I don't know. I don't even know enough about this case to speak with any authority. I only know this: that when a newspaper is silenced, but bloggers are not, it is our duty to reveal what we can.

1 comment:

Alice said...

While I was typing (as the warning messages say on forums) . . . some more interesting tweets:

The Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/5417651/british-press-banned-from-reporting-parliament-seriously.thtml

Protest on Thursday - do go if you can, wish I could come!!! http://tweetvite.com/event/gagcarterruck