HUL's rejoinder to Frontline Cover Story and responses by author

Published : Oct 08, 2010 00:00 IST

Following a discussion at our office with senior representatives from Hindustan Unilever Limited, we have received from Prasad Pradhan, Head of Corporate Communications, HUL this rejoinder to the Cover Story by Sarah Hiddleston titled Poisoned ground published in Frontline (issue of September 24, 2010). We publish this rejoinder along with responses, where needed, from the author of the investigative article. The responses are italicised and within square brackets:

It is a matter of grave disappointment for us to bring to your attention the one sided nature of the article. As agreed, here is our clarification for publication as rejoinder:

The article has chosen not to mention the findings of various expert studies carried out to examine the potential impact on health of workers at our erstwhile factory, including those undertaken at the direction of the State Pollution Control Board, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, and the Honourable Madras High Court. These include:

1. The study conducted by Dr. Tom Van Teunenbroek of TNO-MEP, Netherlands. This study was conducted on the directions of the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board at the behest of NGOs. Dr. Tom in his study concluded: My overall conclusion based on thorough review of the occupational health surveillance measures (biological monitoring, workplace environmental monitoring, shop floor health and safety practices and clinical evaluations) as well as the analysis of group and individual loading over the years, based on a wealth of data due to monitoring at a frequency well above WHO standards, is that there has been no harmful exposure to mercury amongst the employees of the Kodaikanal factory leading to chronic or acute mercury poisoning.

[Frontline has not had access to this report, only a letter from TNO included in a presentation from Hindustan Unilever.]

2. The study done by Industrial Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC), as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC). The ITRC studies concluded that the health issues as encountered by the employees are non-specific in nature and bear no correlation with their exposure to mercury at the workplace. It also concluded that there was no scientific evidence linking mortality and past exposure to mercury at the unit. It further concluded that review of health records, environmental monitoring data, biological monitoring data and correlation with clinical data as well as scientific data on dose-response relationship do not indicate any adverse health impact, which can be correlated to past exposure to mercury in this unit. (It is pertinent to clarify that the SCMC was appointed by the Supreme Court of India for general oversight of the hazardous waste management and implementation of the regulations on hazardous wastes in different States).

[This study was undertaken after the Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association filed its petition before the Madras High Court. Chief Justice A.P. Shah expressed his disapproval of engaging the ITRC while the Court was considering who to ask to look into the matter. The workers have stated before the Court that they were not seen by the ITRC during this study. Also the ITRC did not have access to complete sets of medical records upon which to make assessments. The Court therefore ordered an Expert Committee of doctors to visit Kodaikanal.]

3. The findings of the Expert Committee appointed by the Madras High Court (to assess ex-employees' claims of health issues resulting from mercury exposure at the factory). The High Court-appointed Expert Committee submitted its report in December 2007. The report clarifies 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. It is pertinent to mention here that the expert committee was appointed by the Madras High Court after the suggestion of experts by the petitioners themselves. The expert committee was competent to decide on evaluation parameters and the methodology of tests. Since the committee report is not favorable to the petitioners, it appears they are seeking to question its expertise now.

[The workers have charged this committee with failing to carry out the task set for it by the Court. The article reports their concerns.]

The article seems to rely heavily on the expertise of Dr. Linda Jones. Dr. Jones comments on women's health are not a result of any functional expertise but seem to be based on some personal observations. We have produced sufficient scientific evidence including from the WHO which show that Dr. Jones claims are unfounded. It is incorrect to mention that HUL only relied on group urine Hg means to make the diagnosis. Every individual was evaluated clinically before reaching the conclusions.

[The article quotes Dr. Jones only where relevant. She is an expert in occupational health and mercury exposure. Her claims are based on international recommendations. Her insight is relevant because of the large number of women who worked in the factory as temporary workers. The workers have told the Court that no women were clinically evaluated in the lifetime of the factory.]

The specific clinical disorders of the lady (R. Vijaylakshmi) highlighted in the article cannot be related to exposure to mercury. She was a temporary worker and worked only for four months in the factory and that too in the packing section, which was outside the manufacturing area. In fact, women were never employed in the mercury section. Therefore, it is totally false to say that she worked in the factory for five years. We explained these facts when we met with Ms Hiddleston.

[During my visit to Kodaikanal for the investigative story, R. Vijaylakshmi said she worked for five years. The Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association has placed a record of four years employment for her before the Madras High Court. The company disputes this. The Employees Association has in various affidavits explained how the packing section was housed right next to the manufacturing area and the cold bulb oven, the mercury and non-mercury areas were housed under one roof, and often workers from non-mercury areas were asked to work in mercury areas. Both the company's consultant URS Dames & Moore and the company's affidavit of April 12, 2006, before the Madras High Court state that the packing department fell within the mercury area. Whether or not Vijaylakshmi's complications are the result of mercury exposure is yet to be known, because no proper study has been made of her condition.]

It is unfortunate that the article also does not acknowledge the various steps taken up by the company towards remediation. We had shared with Ms Hiddleston the various steps and remedial measures that HUL has taken on the environmental front. These include the following:

The company on its own stopped the manufacturing operations in March 2001 immediately after it got to know about the glass scrap being sold in breach of the company's established procedures.

[Even though a voluntary decision to close may have been taken by the company, the factory was asked to close by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in March 2001. The TNPCB has stated this in its letter to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests earlier this year.]

As an immediate step, HUL brought back in June 2001 the glass scrap from the scrap yard to factory premises for safe storage.

In August 2001, five silt traps were constructed to prevent discharge of soil from the site to the Pambar valley, the only direction into which the water flows out from the site.

[The article details how the studies undertaken so far have not included assessments such as groundwater flow. The silt traps were constructed only after the factory was shut down in 2001 and were not in place throughout the 18 years of operation.]

In March to May 2003, HUL exported all the mercury-bearing materials such as mercury contained glass scrap, semi and finished thermometers, virgin mercury, and ETP sludge to a mercury recycler in the United States.

During February-May 2006 the plant and machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing at the site were decontaminated and disposed as scrap to industrial recyclers.

[This was undertaken without informing residents, as per the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee's recommendations. In fact, the article details how two members of the SCMC raised this with the TNPCB. However, the work went ahead following representation from the chair of the SCMC before the Madras High Court.]

The remaining remedial measure is soil remediation for which the pre-remediation work has already commenced. Remediation will commence once consent is given by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

[The TNPCB, as shown by the letter reproduced as an image in the story, gave its consent in June 2008. The status of remediation is unclear because the clean-up levels are 10 times less stringent than was originally recommended by the company's own consultant URS Dames & Moore.]

It is pertinent to clarify that various site assessment and risk assessment studies over the years have concluded that there is no adverse impact on environment and health, except a limited impact on the soil at some spots of the factory, which requires remediation. All these details were shared with Ms Hiddleston.

[Nevertheless the fact remains that these studies were paid for by Hindustan Unilever and conducted by its consultants. Many of the samples were tested in Hindustan Unilever's own laboratory in Mumbai.]

The article does not also present the facts with regard to the clean-up standards and the rationale for the same, although these were shared transparently with Ms Hiddleston. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee directed the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to take up a Risk Assessment Study to develop soil remediation criteria for the site. Based on the study submitted by NEERI and the recommendations of the Scientific Experts Committee constituted by the SCMC, the TNPCB set soil remediation criteria. The clean-up criteria were based on the Risk Assessment Study and the need for preservation of local ecology. Remediation criteria based on site-specific risk assessment study are the internationally followed procedure for remediation. Unfortunately, the article does not give representation to these facts.

[The SCMC recommended an agency such as NEERI. The clean-up criteria were based on risk assessments that were paid for by Hindustan Unilever.]

Apart from this, there are inaccuracies in the article, including the following:

Page 6 of the article incorrectly attributes the cause of death to mercury exposure referring to a presentation made by the company to the journalist on March 23, 2010.

[The article mentions 23 deaths. It attributes the causes of death to lung problems, heart problems, and kidney failure, as detailed in a presentation to me by the company. The article does not attribute the cause of death to mercury exposure. It states that the workers say that these are complications arising from mercury exposure.]

On Page 8 of the Frontline story, in the third paragraph it is mentioned that the company dismisses these symptoms as ha ving nothing to do with mercury exposure. What it fails to inform its readers is the basis on which the company concluded that the symptoms were not attributable to mercury exposure. The reported symptoms did not have any significant correlation to exposure levels to mercury, and were purely subjective.

[The article addresses this issue in detail under the subheading Questionable Assessments. Dr. Jones, who was interviewed in detail over the telephone, speaks of the correlation between symptoms and exposure levels. She asserts that a person can suffer symptoms with what appears to be low exposure because there are problems in measuring mercury in urine, which is the method the company was using.]

The article wrongly mentions about the quantum of the severance package (page 8 of the Frontline story. The severance package for the workmen at the time of closure of factory operations in 2001 was settled before the Deputy Labour Commission and was equal to approximately six months salary (three months of salary plus approx. three months equivalent salary as lump sum) for every year of service completed by the workmen and not just three months salary and bonus as mentioned in the article.

[This is a factual mistake, which I regret. The information received from the company, which is recorded in my notes, was three months salary plus a bonus for every year of service. We now learn the severance package was approximately six months salaryfor each year of service. I apologise for the inadvertent omission of the words per year in the article.]

The report in the Frontline (Page 17- 3rd column para 1) incorrectly mentions that in the study published in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, it was not disclosed that the population examined was drawn from the company's own workforce and in this manner the company gave the workers and itself a clean bill of health. This is, in fact, far from the truth. There is an upfront declaration in the study that this was a factory of Hindustan Lever (page 11 in the introduction portion of the paper). In addition all the author affiliations are mentioned in the study. Hence, the allegation that it was not disclosed that this was an HLL factory is incorrect.

[The statement in the article that the fact that the population in question was drawn from the company's own workforce was not disclosed is a factual mistake and I regret it. However, it is correct to say that the standard conflict of interest declaration required for publication of articles in scientific and medical journals was not followed in this case. The relevant sentence should have read: The article appeared without declaration of conflict of interest. In this manner the company gave the workers and itself a clean bill of health.]

The Frontline article mentions that the expert committee team was headed by the same doctor from ITRC who had already submitted his opinion supporting Hindustan Unilever's case (page 18 of the article). This is again a false allegation. The expert committee appointed by the Madras High Court was not headed by the same doctor who had already submitted his opinion supporting Hindustan Unilever's case.

[The statement in my article that the team was headed by Dr. A.K. Srivastava the same doctor from the ITRC who had already submitted his opinion supporting Hindustan Unilever's case is a factual mistake, which I regret. The corrected sentence should read: The team was headed by Dr A.K. Srivastava a doctor from the same institution which had already submitted its opinion supporting Hindustan Unilever's case.]

Page 5 of the article incorrectly states that in the year 2003 mercury-contaminated waste weighing almost 300 tonnes was extracted from the town. This is factually wrong. We wish to clarify that the 291 tonnes of mercury-bearing materials that were exported to a mercury recycler in the United States in 2003 were from the factory storage. Only seven tonnes of this was glass scrap with soil, which was brought back into the factory in 2001 from a scrap dealer at Kodaikanal. This had been sold in breach of the company's procedure.

[I agree that it would have been more precise and less open to misconstruing to have stated here that 291 tonnes of mercury-bearing waste were exported from the factory storage to a mercury recycler in the United States in 2003.]

TNPCB did not direct Hindustan Unilever to contract NEERI. HUL was directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to associate NEERI, as an independent expert, for remedial measures.

[The article does not state that the TNPCB directed the company to contract NEERI, but that the company was allowed to do so. In its September 2004 report the SCMC asked the TNPCB to: Invoke action under Rule 16 (2) of the Hazardous Waste Rules fix the liability on HLL [Hindustan Unilever]...[who], being the occupier, is liable to pay the entire cost of remediation/restoration to the status quo ante. It also directed the TNPCB, not HUL, to appoint a suitable expert agency as project management consultant and form a local area committee of respected members of Kodaikanal's community who would monitor compliance with Supreme Court directives.]

It has always been our effort to keep all stakeholders informed on the progress on the remediation work in a transparent and timely manner. It is in this regard that we have put up a comprehensive information note on our website for easy access to any one interested. The information note can be accessed online at: Thermometer_India_tcm114-195572.pdf

[The information made available at the website is useful and relevant to the story. But Kodaikanal's civil society representatives on the local clean-up committees were sidelined from discussions from mid-2005, as records of meetings from the TNPCB obtained under the Right to Information Act show.]

We have engaged with The Hindu group on this issue on several instances over the years, including visits to the editorial office in Chennai where we had made detailed presentations and shared reports and studies transparently. Similarly, in response to the author's initial request in early 2010, we had visited The Hindu office in Chennai and met with her and once again shared all the details in person. We were told the article was intended for publication in The Hindu. The author came back to us on August 17, 2010 again with a detailed questionnaire seeking our responses on each one of these. We again sent her detailed responses. It is disheartening to note that a publication of the repute of Frontline has allowed the publication of an article that is biased, misleading, and has made convenient compromises on presenting an issue to its readers. This is in spite of the best efforts to share the information in a transparent manner.

[ The company's senior representatives did spend time briefing me and responding to my questions, in person and in writing, and I do appreciate the access and the courtesy. It is a reporter's duty to seek responses, and in this case detailed responses were sought from all relevant players. Typically in an investigative story the process of interaction is likely to be repeated. The questionnaire I sent and to which I received a prompt response was a final attempt prior to publication to get the company's side of the story in relation to the contentious issues and I believe this response has been reflected in the story as published. The length of the investigative article seemed to suggest publication in a magazine that takes long form journalism. In any case the question of where an article is to be published is an editorial decision of the newspaper group.]

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