United States v. Conopco Inc. d.b.a. Unilever Home and Personal Care USA: Health and beauty product maker Unilever has agreed to pay $4.5 million in criminal penalties after pleading guilty to two felony environmental violations at its former manufacturing plant in Clinton.
Unilever Home and Personal Care USA also reached an agreement with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in connection with a civil enforcement proceeding stemming from the allegations involving the illegal draining of wastewater. The company will pay $100,000 to settle the civil case.
Unilever products are sold in 190 countries and include household names like Q-tips, Ben & Jerry’s, Hellman’s, Lipton and Ragu.
On Dec. 5, Unilever pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut say that the charges stem from Unilever’s December 2008 illegal discharge of industrial wastewater at the former Clinton plant and the company’s failure to report the discharge in a timely manner.
As part of its plea agreement, Unilever agreed to pay a $1 million fine and intends to contribute $3.5 million to state and local environmental programs. The payment includes $2.5 million to fund the Connecticut Resiliency and Climate Adaption Center, which will conduct research, outreach and education projects related to the impact of rising sea levels.
In addition, $500,000 will go towards the construction of a fishway at the Chapman Mill Pond in Clinton and $500,000 to the Town of Clinton for other environmentally beneficial projects.
“The people of our state suffered greatly as a result of Hurricane Irene and Storm Sandy and unfortunately the outlook ahead is for even more extreme weather events as a result of changes in the climate being predicted by experts,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement after the agreements were reached between the state and Unilever.
“It is the mission of the Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation to help us mitigate the risks posed by the changing climate,” Malloy continued. “We will look to the Institute to provide the people and communities along our coast and inland floodplains with the research and information needed to better predict their vulnerability and to develop and undertake steps toward greater resiliency.”
Unilever’s Clinton manufacturing facility produced a variety of health and beauty products for sale in the United States. The wastewater produced by the plant was regulated by a permit that prohibited the company from bypassing any portion of its wastewater treatment system unless the bypass was unanticipated, unavoidable and necessary to prevent loss of life, personal injury or severe property damage.
The permit further required that Unilever notify authorities within two hours of becoming aware of any bypass of the treatment system. The company also had to submit a written report within five days setting forth the cause of the problem, the duration of the event, and corrective actions taken or planned to prevent future occurrences.
On Dec. 5, 2008, a third-party contract employee at the Clinton plant noticed that a hose was being used to bypass the industrial wastewater treatment system and allow the contents of a 4,500-gallon filtration tank to discharge directly to a storm drain pipe that led to Hayden Creek. The employee reported the incident to Unilever officials, but the company did not immediately inform the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, even though a representative was on-site at the Clinton plant just three days later for an unrelated reason.
Not until Dec. 10 did the company finally notify DEEP officials.
The company conducted its own investigation and claimed it was unable to conclusively determine who was responsible for the decision to bypass the wastewater treatment system and characterized the episode as an isolated, “one-off” incident that may have been the work of unknown “vandals,” according to court documents.
However, a later U.S. Environmental Agency probe revealed that the breach was intentional and that the bypassing of the treatment system in this manner had routinely occurred for the past two years. By December 2012, the company had ceased operations at the Clinton plant.
Unilever pleaded guilty to two counts of knowingly violating, or causing to be violated, the Clean Water Act. Each of these counts carries a maximum term of probation of five years and a fine of up to $500,000. U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny has scheduled sentencing for March 3.
“Individuals or businesses that violate our laws may endanger public health and safety and the environment. Violations of this nature are not acceptable,” Attorney General George Jepsen said in a statement. “I’m pleased that this agreement will require Unilever to safely close its facility and to fund various environmentally beneficial projects that will promote smart growth, energy efficiency and brownfield redevelopment.”
If the judge accepts the plea deal, Unilever will be placed on probation for three years and pay a fine of $1 million. Unilever will also inform the court of is $3.5 million payment to the state towards environmental projects.
Unilever officials say they are unaware of any evidence that any wastewater release resulted in harm to fish, other wildlife or drinking water.
“Unilever is recognized for its commitment to sustainability, including sound environmental, health and safety practices. We have worked closely and collaboratively with the state and federal regulators throughout this process to fully address their concerns,” said Reginaldo Ecclissato, a Unilever vice-president, in a statement. “We are pleased to contribute to important local projects that will benefit the environment.”
As part of its settlements, Unilever has agreed to third-party environmental inspections of its manufacturing facilities in the U.S. at least once during a three-year period. The company will provide a report describing the inspection results to the government. It will also provide basic environmental compliance training to facility employees.