Prosecute HLL for Forest Crimes

Feature story - March 8, 2004
KODAIKANAL, India — Kodaikanal, March 8, 2004: On the 3rd anniversary of the closure of Hindustan Lever Limited’s (HLL’s) thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, at a public rally held in Kodaikanal on March 7, 2004, the coalition of ex-workers, Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury (TAAM) and Greenpeace called upon the Government of India to prosecute Unilever (the parent corporation) and Hindustan Lever Limited for a series of environmental crimes and human rights violations in India.

HLL

"In any developed country, Unilever would have been forced to clean-up and remediate such a disaster site immediately, using best standards and practices. There is ample evidence to prove that the mercury emitted from the HLL plant had far greater and wider impacts than the experts commissioned by HLL were prepared to reveal," said Ameer Shahul, Toxics Campaigner, Greenpeace India, "And yet, three years after being caught, HLL is yet to submit complete clean-up protocols to the Pollution Control Board."

"Thousands of people, especially workers, their families and other residents, have been unsuspecting victims of the persistent dangers posed by Unilever's inadequate commitment to transparency, integrity, or concern for public health and environment," he added.

Two scientific studies, conducted after the closure of the factory in March 2001, have definitively established highly elevated levels of mercury contamination within the town, in the forests, and in locations as far as the pristine Berijam lake, 20 km from Kodaikanal. The affected region includes the Pambar-Shola forests, acknowledged as a bio-diversity hotspot of Tamil Nadu.

The first scientific study, by a team from the National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials (CCCM), a Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) institute, had reported atmospheric mercury in some areas outside the factory site in Kodaikanal, in concentrations up to 1.32ug/m3. HLL responded by commenting that the findings of the report were "at variance with the data collected by independent foreign consultants" and that the levels detected were "much lower than the 50 mg limit prescribed under the factory rules."

"This response once again reflects HLL's lack of understanding of mercury as a serious toxic hazard," said Navroz Mody of PHCC, "The mercury concentrations reported by the DAE institute are seven times higher than the guidance value of 0.2 ug/m3 suggested by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). HLL's attempt to equate levels permitted within a factory under strict protective control to levels the general public may be exposed to, is but one measure of HLL's utter disregard for public health and safety."

Another significant study, by Greenpeace Research Laboratories, establishes the fact that significant amounts of mercury are to be found along the entire crest of the hills surrounding Kodaikanal lake to the West of the factory, and in the Bombay, Vattakanal and Pambar sholas. The report "has demonstrated the spread of mercury through the atmosphere to areas that the HLL commissioned assessment failed to investigate" and shows the distance to which the impact can be detected. According to the report, "The manifold increases in accumulated mercury in the elevated lichen samples give an indication of potential impacts on ecosystems at these locations. Plants that accumulate atmospheric mercury are likely to form part of the diet of fauna living in the vicinity. Through such processes, mercury can be transferred into the wider ecosystem, possibly bio-accumulating in certain species."

Unilever-HLL meanwhile, continue to insist that their own limited studies adequately allow them to deny responsibility for any mercury impact on the health of workers at the plant, or of the surrounding community or environment. Most critically their studies allow Unilever-HLL to deny that their mercury could be responsible for the death of 13 young men (average age 32 years) after having worked at the factory.

The coalition of ex-workers, community representatives, PHCC and Greenpeace demand that:

· The government prosecute Unilever for lying to a statutory body and presenting false information, and for destroying evidence in a matter concerning the lives and health of hundreds of workers, their families and many thousands more who have or may come into contact with mercury.

· The government prosecute a corrupt Inspectorate of Factories which for 18 years failed to find any traces of mercury at the factory site or beyond, thus jeopardizing the lives of the workers and the environment.

· The government initiate, at Unilever's expense, independent long-term studies to monitor the impact of mercury on this delicate hill-forest ecosystem, the town and the people. The mercury in the forests could have far reaching implications both in the town of Kodaikanal and downstream to Palani and Vaigai.

· The government order, at Unilever's expense, an independent inquiry on the impact of mercury on the health of the workers, their families and other susceptible members of the community, and initiate long-term monitoring and treatments for detoxification of affected populations.

· The families of ten dead workers and all workers and affected community members be compensated for loss of earning capacity, damages for mercury contamination and long-term health remediation.

· The mercury retrieved from HLL's wastes be permanently retired to ensure that it is not once more released in another unsuspecting part of the developing world.

For further information, please contact:

Ameer Shahul, Toxics Campaigner, Greenpeace: +91 9845535408

or

Namrata Chowdhary, Media Officer, Greenpeace: +919810850092

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