Unilever settles with employees of plant shut for mercury pollution

The Indian arm of global consumer giant Unilever has reached a settlement with hundreds of former employees 15 years after its thermometer plant in southern India was shut following accusations of mercury contamination.

Hindustan Unilever Ltd. agreed to provide payments to 591 former workers and their families for livelihood and skill enhancement programs, without accepting legal responsibility. A company statement on Wednesday did not provide the size of the payments.

A workers' group says mercury poisoning killed 45 workers and 18 family members over a period of 33 years. Hindustan Unilever has denied that any employees were harmed. It has acknowledged that some areas of the factory were contaminated but says they were cleaned up after the plant was shut in 2001.

S.A. Mahindra Babu, president of the HLL ex-Mercury Employees' Welfare Association, welcomed the settlement. "We now consider this issue to be fully resolved and have no grievance against the company in this regard," he said Thursday.

However, environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman said Hindustan Unilever failed to meet international standards in its cleanup of mercury-contaminated areas.

He said the company left up to 25 milligrams per kilogram of mercury in the soil, which he said was 250 times higher than naturally occurring levels.

"This was higher than global standards and will harm the environment," he said.

Pond's moved the factory to India from the United States in the early 1980s and it was taken over by Hindustan Unilever in 1987.  Factory workers and public interest groups complained of health problems in the early 2000s, alleging that the company wasn't handling mercury properly.

The plant was shut in 2001 and by 2003, 300 tonnes of contaminated waste was extracted from the area.

Hindustan Unilever said it submitted suggestions for further soil remediation to the state pollution control board last year and is awaiting approval.

Mercury poisoning can cause birth defects, brain malfunction and tumours.

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