The ConAgra clean-up should be a warning

The Redwood Blog
Published:  12 August, 2014
Mike Redwood

"Wouldn't it be great if the leather industry in the developing world paid attention to what happened in Maine and took steps to clean up their act." So says John Moore in a comment on LinkedIn's Leather Naturally! regarding the agreement by American foodstuff giant ConAgra to pay $5.7 million for cleaning up the old South Paris tannery of A.C.Lawrence.

I am sure many readers will remember this famous company. My first visit to it was back in the mid 1970s when it felt quite an honour to visit such a venerable unit. Sadly it hit the headlines in 1983 when a number of senior executives were given hefty fines and just escaped jail sentences for what read as pretty woeful cheating of the environmental regulations and the illegal dumping of waste materials on a different site owned by the Co.

This new settlement is some 30 years after the tannery closed. The tannery was built in 1955 by Swift & Co., and in 1973 was transferred into Estech Inc. It involves a legal mind to understand all the ownerships here but Estech was linked in various ways to Beatrice Foods and merged into it in 1991. More transfers and mergers among various other Beatrice companies followed and finally the whole thing merged into Hunt-Wesson, which in 1999 changed its name to ConAgra Grocer Products Company.

This long and curious journey appears to make ConAgra the successor company for the purposes of environmental liability. The term we need to remember is CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act). In 2000 local residents observed "green slime" oozing into the Little Androscoggin River. This was discovered to have come from old sludge pits, which had been covered with gravel and forgotten about and the charge seems to be that the company illegally deposited hazardous substances such as chromium, lead and volatile organic into the ponds. Some 34,000 tons of soil has now been removed by the EPA, with more work still to be done.

Tough days

Those days were tough for tanners and there was sometimes an attitude to "get away with what you could"; and the actual health hazards were not as well understood as they are now. Most new tanneries built around the world are exemplary in their waste handling but continued publicity about the Ganges and Bangladesh, among other places, is deeply depressing for all well intentioned tanners who invest in doing things properly. Just as bad are those with good effluent plants who refuse to use them or who take solid wastes and pay for them just to be dumped out of sight.

Around the world we are seeing problems where housing has been built on old tannery land, which has not been fully cleaned up. Now we have a message that those who cheat today will not just get into trouble today but their future family and successors will also be penalised heavily. All tanners in the world, large and small, must accept that making leather includes the proper management of all waste streams. At no level should our industry condone bypassing this clear duty and while it seems tough on ConAgra perhaps this will serve as a warning that better due diligence is needed so that those who misbehave today are more likely to be made to pay.

Leather is a wonderful material; but only when it is properly made. Cheats are not welcome in our industry. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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