Factsheet: Response to the claims made by HUL on their website
1. HUL claims that: Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL)*, did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on land behind its factory. Scrap glass containing mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines. HUL immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.
- HLL was caught red handed not only letting waste out in the local scrap yard but also dumping mercury contaminated waste in the adjoining Shola forests.
- It did not voluntarily close down its facility but was forced to close down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) closure order – Proc No HWM/4280/TNPCB/2001-1 dt 23.3.01.
- Since 1998, HLL has been systematically sending mercury contaminated glass out, selling to the scrap dealers and about 90 tonnes of their waste has been send out to various states.
- HUL’s own report, by URS Dames and Moore, calculates that at least 1.2 tones of mercury has been let out by the factory into the Pambar Shola in their 18 years of operation.
2. HUL claims that: There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment. This has been confirmed by many independent studies. There was limited impact on the soil at some spots within the factory premises, which required remediation.
- More than 45 workers exposed to mercury during their employment are dead.
- At least 18 children, born to workers of the unit have died so far and more than 30 are severely affected.
- The Ministry of Labour constituted Committee conducted an detailed investigation of the claims of exposure to mercury by the ex-workers and concluded that the HUL’s operations indeed poisoned the workers.
- Research has found presence of high levels of mercury in the environment subsequent to the closure of the plant in 2001.
- Reports from Greenpeace in 2003, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 2003 and 2005 that have very well established the presence of high levels of mercury in mosses, lichens and in lakes as far as 20-40 km away from the site. All these agencies cite the HUL thermometer factory as the source of elevated levels of mercury in the environment.
- Company’s own report by Dames and Moore reveals presence of mercury in high levels within and outside the factory premises and the factory site is yet to be clean up.
- Samples of lichens, mosses and sediments from outside the factory premises, analysed by the DAE in 2015 have shown presence of high levels of mercury. This indicates that the mercury in the factory premises is leaking into the forest and watershed area and contaminating areas outside the factory premises.
3. HUL claims that: With the necessary permits from the US and Indian governments, the recovered glass scrap was sent to the US for recycling in 2003. In early 2006 the plant and machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing at the site were decontaminated and disposed of as scrap to industrial recyclers
Reality: The working committee on hazardous waste, a committee constituted by the TNPCB to look into the speedy resolution on of the waste crisis and contamination forced HUL to take the waste back to the US and monitored them until the waste was sent back
4. HUL claims that: Activities at the Kodaikanal site became a focus for attention in March 2001 when Greenpeace and others brought to Hindustan Unilever’s attention the fact that glass scrap containing mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory. HUL immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.
Reality: It was not “brought to their attention”. Local residents and Greenpeace highlighted the violation, marched to the gates and demanded closure of the plant.
5. HUL claims that: The investigation showed that the manufacturing process was safe and had been audited as such both internally by HUL and by the Tamil Nadu State authorities. There were strict processes in place for recycling glass scrap containing traces of mercury. It was these procedures that had been breached and glass scrap containing mercury had gone to recyclers, who should only have had pure glass scrap.
Reality: The statement about the internal audit that the plant has conducted is false as in a Government of India constituted investigation in 2011, the factory manager of HUL Kodaikanal unit has gone on record and admitted that there was no internal or external or third party audit ever done of the unit. This was in response to a specific question pertaining to internal and third party audit.
6. HUL claims that: The Final Report from URS on the assessment for mercury at the site concluded that the Kodai lake had not been impacted by mercury; the people who had worked at the site had not suffered adverse health effects due to the factory operations; and remediation of soil was needed at the site.
Reality: The mandate of the Study of URS was the assessment of the extent of contamination of site by mercury from the factory.
Health study was not in the scope of the report commissioned to URS. URS never conducted any health check up on the workers so it could not have concluded that none of the workers suffered from adverse health effects.
7. HUL claims that: HUL removed 7.4 tonnes of mercury-bearing glass scrap and the soil beneath the scrap from the scrap yard to its factory premises for safe storage.
Reality: It is interesting to see that HUL now claims to have removed 7.4 tones of scrap when in its earlier paragraph of the same note it had said “Our investigation revealed that 5.3 metric tonnes of mercury-tainted glass scrap (containing approx. 0.15% residual mercury) had been sold in breach of our established procedures.”
There is an inconsistency in HUL’s reporting on how much scrap was illegally removed from the factory. Workers claim that mercury contaminated scrap was illegally removed from the site since 1998.
The workers also pointed out the discrepancy in accounting of 11 tonnes of mercury in the mercury balance calculated by URS Dames and Moore in 2001. After this the consultant juggled the figures and increased the amount of mercury in thermometer to cover for the missing mercury in May 2002.
8. HUL claims that: HUL sought permission as early as 28 June 2002 for the clean up or remediation of the land within the premises of the factory to a high, residential standard known as the ‘Dutch standard’ (10 mg/kg).
Reality: HUL had accepted in the working committee meeting (upon insistence of the members to clean up the site to best international standards) that it would clean up the site to Dutch standards of 10 mg/kg. But these standards were not permanent as the working committee also felt necessary to look for more stringent standards keeping in mind the ecological sensitivity of the region.
For statements and claims made by HUL about development on their site cleanup and remediation measures from May 2005 till 2011-12, our response is below:
During this period HUL actively colluded with the corrupt officials in the TNPCB and with NEERI to keep the members of the Working Committee and the Local Area Environment Committee out of discussion on the site remediation and clean up process.
They have also worked with NEERI on dilution of the standards of the clean up from 10 mg/kg to 20-25 mg/kg, providing “techno-commercial reasons” as justification to these dilutions in standards.
If the site were to be cleanup to the diluted standard now proposed then HUL will be leaving behind at least 300 kg of mercury after this cleanup. (Please see the report tiled – “Double Standards – Unilever’s Mercury Fever & Kodaikanal’s Ecological Time Bomb” for more details on how HUL engaged in shoddy science to dilute the standards of clean up).
The citizens’ groups have objected to the dilution and have stalled the process of cleanup to the diluted standards. It is a case of double standards as HUL would not have been able to get away with such standards of cleanup in Britain or in Netherlands. Moreover HUL wants to use residential standards of clean up to a site, which is forest and is ecologically sensitive.
9. HUL claims that: In addition, many expert studies carried out after the closure all concluded that there had been no adverse health impacts on ex-employees due to the nature of their work in the factory. These studies included:
Studies by the Certifying Surgeon from the Inspectorate of Factories, by Dr P N Viswanathan of Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC); by Dr Tom van Teuenbroek of TNO as directed by the State Pollution Control Board TNPCB; and by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
The conclusions from our own occupational health surveillance have also been independently endorsed by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH).
Reality: All the so called independent studies that HUL quotes on this aspect are all studies commissioned by HUL or with agencies engaged by them.
None of these agencies have looked at any other data beyond what was provided to them by HUL.
Not a single worker has been physically examined by the scientists and specialist of these agencies.
No data was sought from the workers to cross check the claims of the company and a clean chit to HUL was given based on the documents provided by the management on their behest.
10. HUL claims that: The expert committee obtained inputs from the petitioners and from Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and, during a visit to the factory in October 2007 to understand its safety systems and procedures, also examined some ex-workers and family members of ex-workers. The expert committee submitted its report in December 2007. Its conclusion was that “The committee failed to find sufficient evidence to link the current clinical condition of the factory workers to the mercury exposure in the factory in the past”. The Madras High Court appointed expert committee ruled out the need for any fresh health study.
The Ministry of Labour & Employment (the Ministry) is also a respondent in the matter filed by the ex-workers of the Kodaikanal factory in the Madras High Court. After almost four years of the earlier report being put on Court record and without any objections to the report, the Ministry has recently (end 2011) submitted a report to the Honourable Madras High Court. HUL has filed its objections to the Ministry’s report. The matter is sub judice.
Reality: It is interesting to see a diverse stand HUL has taken on the issue of the reports of High Court appointed expert committee and the Ministry of Labour appointed committee report. Both the reports pertain to the same matter and is sub-judice but to its convenience HUL has decided to make public the findings of the High Court appointed committee report – “The committee failed to find sufficient evidence to link the current clinical condition of the factory workers to the mercury exposure in the factory in the past”. But in the context of the Ministry of Labour report takes shelter in the fact that the matter is sub judice and they have filed their objections to the report. In reality the Ministry of Labor appointed committee in its report concluded –
“The committee is of the opinion that there is a prima-facie evidence from the personal & medical investigation of victims during the field visit to HLL Factory, Kodaikanal on 4th, 5th & 6th October, 2011 that not only the ex-workers of the HLL, Kodiakanal, but also their new born children have suffered on account of mercury exposure such as Tremor, knee pain, Loss of memory, Loss of teeth, Irregular menstrual period for women, Infertility, Skin problems, Premature delivery of baby by pregnant women and children having ailments like Mental retardation, Deformity of organ, Birth defect like blue baby and Loss of memory were also noticed.”
It should also be noted that the High Court has not yet accepted or rejected both the reports so it is really mischievous for HUL to highlight the findings of the first report since it is in their favor and use the ‘sub-judice’ card on the second report.