Unilever's Mercury Fever
Did Unilever downplay the dangers of mercury dumping?
In the months following the discovery and expose of Unilever's polluting practices in Kodaikanal, many of the responses and statements by the company have been contrary to facts. The time line below outlines a few. (Emphasis is the author's.)
The Scrap Yard Dump
March 7, 2001: Kodaikanal townspeople cordon off scrap yard containing tons of mercury-containing toxic wastes from Unilever's thermometer factory. They confront factory management with photographs of visibly mercury-contaminated waste.
March 7, 2001: In an interview at the factory gate, Mr. Subramaniam, export marketing manager for Hindustan Lever denied reports of dumping and said: "No hazardous wastes have left the factory site."1
March 7, 2001: In an email response from the headquarters, Unilever stated that "It is this glass waste from the non-mercury area, which is completely free from any mercury at all, which we have sold, this too only with necessary permission from Customs and Central Excise officials."2
March 8, 2001: Unilever subsidiary Hindustan Lever said: "Allegations that scrap glass generated in the HLL Kodaikanal Thermometer factory's non-mercury area, purchased by a local scrap dealer more than 15 months back, contains some glass with mercury waste has caused the company enormous surprise and concern since such a possibility is remote given established systems and controls which are in place."3
June 21, 2001: Unilever subsidiary Hindustan Lever said: "Hindustan Lever Limited has retrieved, for secure storage at the site, the 5.3 tonnes of mercury containing glass scrap currently stored on a scrap dealers premises in Kodaikanal, which had been inadvertently removed from the factory in breach of established procedures."
The toxic wastes that Unilever claims were "inadvertently removed from the factory" were actually sold by the company to the scrap dealer. The company admits that at least 30 more tons of mercury-containing wastes has been sold to recyclers in various parts of South India. Such sales are patently illegal under Indian law.
April 11, 2001: Factory workers report that company exhumed wastes containing visible quantities of mercury from unlined pits in the factory. Worker testimonies and video footage available with Greenpeace confirm that the wastes were exhumed by workers without appropriate protective gear. The company's response does not indicate whether there were any independent witnesses present to supervise the operations. Neither does it appear that the Company sought the permission or presence of the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board for the operations.
April 12, 2001: Unilever said: "In so far as our own site is concerned, post suspension of manufacturing operations, we have been using the workforce rendered idle for good housekeeping and also for activities connected with material balancing. . .We have actually notified the customs authorities that we were taking out the non-mercury glass that had been buried at our own site in the 80s as a part of this work."
Clean Up: Small Lies
June 20, 2001: A document signed by a representative of the Pollution Control Board and a representative of the Kodaikanal township indicates that Hindustan Lever retrieved 7.4 tons of mercury-containing glass scrap and 3.5 tons of soil from the scrap yard located in Kodaikanal.
June 21, 2001: Unilever's statement underreports the quantity of mercury wastes dumped and retrieved from the scrap yard. "Hindustan Lever Limited has retrieved, for secure storage at the site, the 5.3 tonnes of mercury containing glass scrap currently stored on a scrap dealers premises in Kodaikanal, which had been inadvertently removed from the factory in breach of established procedures."
Public interview with Mr. Subramaniam, manager (exports), Hindustan Lever, at HLL Thermometer Factory, Kodaikanal. March 7, 2001.
Pers. Comm. via email from Debasis Ray, Corporate Communications Manager, Hindustan Lever Ltd. March 7, 2001.
"HLL orders comprehensive audit & review at thermometer plant, suspends operation for the time being." HLL press release, Mumbai. March 8, 2001.