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Unilever's Dumping Fever

By Nityanand Jayaraman, Multinational Monitor - April 2001

KODAIKANAL, INDIA - The smell of eucalyptus and pine hangs fresh in the air. The mist clears as a breeze wafts in from the densely forested valley to the east. The signboard near the gate proudly declares that the place is "Hindustan Lever Limited. Thermometer Factory. 100% Export Oriented Unit. Kodaikanal."

For years, the public image of HLL, a 51 percent-owned subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, was restricted to the infrequent road-side signboards exhorting people to "Keep Kodai Clean."

The factory does not look too out-of-place for Kodaikanal, a popular tourist destination in South India known for its beautiful lakes, rich forests and perennially cool weather. But all is not well for either the factory, which employs 180 workers, or for this quiet little hill town developed by U.S. missionaries.

The environmental groups Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) and Greenpeace recently brought to light evidence that implicates the multinational in the indiscriminate dumping of mercury-contaminated toxic wastes in Kodaikanal.

Behind the thermometer factory, the Pambar shola forests spread out in a pleasant swathe of green hues. This is hallowed territory. Shola forests (or tropical montane forests) are peculiar to the hills in south India and among the richest terrestrial biodiversity hotspots in the world. More importantly, every shola is a watershed draining into a perennial stream or river.

PHCC, which has spent the last 15 years in efforts to arrest the degradation of these precious natural heritage sites, received a rude shock when it discovered that the forests were being used as a dumping ground for mercury-contaminated wastes.

The dump is spread out. A barrel is found lying on its side on the forest floor, spilling out the contents of broken thermometers, some containing mercury. Plastic bottles labeled "Bethlehem Instrument Mercury Poison" litter the nearby area. The bottles and their erstwhile contents of refined mercury were supplied by Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Apparatus.

"Since the time that we last visited the dump on January 25, they (HLL) have cleared it," says Raja Mohan, a PHCC activist. "They are obviously trying to hide what evidence they can of waste dumping."

Mr. Subramanian, marketing manager (exports) for Hindustan Lever, however, denies these reports, and nervously refuses to look at the pictures of the now-cleared forest dumpsite. "I'm sorry. I'm not authorized to speak. Nobody is authorized to speak today."

Barely three kilometers away, at Munjikal - a densely populated part of town - a scrapyard owner complains that he is stuck with between 10 and 15 tons of mercury-containing broken thermometers sold to him as broken glass scrap by HLL six months ago.

"I'm merely a scrap merchant. I went to pick up scrap from the factory, and they said I would get the other scrap only if I took the broken thermometers," says Piraviyam, the scrapyard owner. "Nobody told me it was illegal or that mercury is dangerous. Last year, my boys collected about half a liter of mercury but I don't know what happened to it."

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxicant that can also damage internal organs. Once it enters the environment, it is converted through natural processes into a form that works its way rapidly through the food chain where it can concentrate to dangerously high levels.

The broken thermometers now lie in Piraviyam's cluttered shop in open and torn sacks, exposed to the environment, a stone's throw away from two schools.

On 7 March, a broad coalition of 400 activists, including women's groups, consumer organizations, indigenous people's groups, environmentalists, ex-workers and even tourists descended on the scrapyard. A colorful procession marched from the scrapyard to the factory holding placards that read "No More Bhopals; No More Minamata" and demanded a public apology from the factory management. Meanwhile, a team of ex-workers assisted by Greenpeace cordoned off the scrapyard.

"We're running a very safe operation, and we are more concerned than anybody about our employees and the environment," says Subramanian. An official response from HLL claims the company only sold the "glass waste from the non-mercury area, which is completely free from any mercury at all."

Another HLL communiqué on March 8 announced that the company has decided to suspend thermometer production at the Kodaikanal factory. The HLL statement, local groups claim, downplays the magnitude of the environmental damage by asserting that there is only a "remote chance" that "some glass with mercury waste" may have left the factory owing to a possible "human error."

"We are not interested in a Bhopal-style cover-up," says Navroz Mody, Greenpeace's campaign director in India and a long-time resident of Kodaikanal. "If Hindustan Lever does not know how much mercury-contaminated waste has left its factory, it is irresponsible and insensitive to convey to the world that what left the factory was only 'some glass with mercury waste.'"

Indeed, one local activist displays two buckets of broken thermometers purchased from a nearby scrapyard. Some of the thermometers contain visible quantities of mercury. A few are marked with the brand names of familiar U.S., UK and German companies that source their mercury thermometers from the Unilever plant in Kodaikanal, including BA Baxter India, Cheseborough Ponds Inc., Trimpeks and AB Franklin.

According to Mahendra Babu, an ex-worker who is attempting to organize several affected workers, the company's waste management practices are no surprise given the casual manner in which mercury is handled within the factory.

"When I worked there, they used to suck up the mercury from the floor using a vacuum cleaner once a day. In another section, where they heat thermometers in an oven, workers are exposed to gusts of mercury vapor every time the oven door is opened."

"Most of those working there [HLL] get affected, mainly in the kidneys," says a local doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I advise all of them that the only cure is to quit their jobs and many do so. Others suffer from stomach pains, burning sensations while passing urine and high pus content in urine."

"They tell us to drink lots of water," says one current worker, who refuses to be identified. "They tell us not to worry

- if they find high levels of mercury in our urine, they will change us to a different area." Several ex-workers complain that the company refuses to share any records of the infrequent medical tests conducted on them.

Unilever's worldwide "Policy and Strategy" states that the company's aims are to "exercise the same concern for the environment wherever we operate."

The Kodaikanal plant began production in 1983 after a second-hand mercury thermometer plant owned by Cheseborough Ponds Inc. in Watertown, New York, closed down and relocated to India under the ownership of Ponds India Ltd. In 1998, Ponds India merged with Hindustan Lever, the Unilever subsidiary.

HLL imports the glass and the mercury primarily from the United States, and exports all of its thermometers to the U.S.-based Faichney Medical Co. of Maryland Heights, Missouri. From there, the thermometers find their way into markets in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Spain.

The chairperson of Tamilnadu's State Pollution Control Board says she is determined to punish the company if it is proven guilty.

"If the evidence indicates that this company has mishandled its waste, we can order their closure and we will expect them, as a multinational, to use the latest technology available in the world to clean up," says Sheela Rani Chungath.

Meanwhile, the local groups are asking the company to apologize publicly for betraying the trust of the host community and polluting the environment.

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