CONOPCO, INC., doing business as UNILEVER HOME & PERSONAL CARE USA, (“Unilever”) waived its right to indictment and pleaded guilty today in Hartford federal court to two felony violations of the Clean Water Act.
The charges stem from Unilever’s December 2008 illegal discharge of industrial wastewater at a manufacturing site in Clinton 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. The company also intends to contribute $3.5 million to state and local environmental programs.
“The environmental integrity of Connecticut’s rivers and the Long Island Sound are of essential importance to our state,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Daly. “As this case demonstrates, our Office will vigorously prosecute companies whose actions threaten Connecticut’s natural resources. We recognize and thank the EPA for their invaluable work in this investigation. In addition, it is entirely appropriate that Unilever has agreed to redress their violations by contributing $2.5 million to fund research, outreach and education projects related to the effects of rising sea levels, $500,000 to construct a fishway in Clinton, and $500,000 to the Town of Clinton for other environmentally beneficial projects. The Company’s contributions will directly assist the State of Connecticut in its efforts to protect and preserve our environment.”
“America’s communities deserve clean water, free from containments in illegal wastewater discharges,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Protecting these communities means holding violators accountable, both for illegal discharges and for failure to report them.”
“This case sends the clear message that those who flaunt environmental laws designed to protect public health and natural resources will pay a price,” said DEEP Commissioner Esty. “A portion of the funds will be directed to environmentally beneficial projects in the town of Clinton, the place where the violations took place. The remaining dollars will be used to build on our efforts to increase the resiliency of coastal communities and interior floodplains – and their residents – so we are better prepared to face the more extreme and severe weather predicted for the future.”
According to court documents and statements made in court, 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, and submit a written report within five days setting forth the cause of the problem, the duration of the event including dates and times, and corrective actions taken or planned to prevent future occurrences.
On December 5, 2008, at approximately 3:00 p.m., a third party contract employee noticed that a hose was being used to bypass the industrial process wastewater treatment system by allowing the contents of a 4,500 gallon vacuum filter filtrate tank to discharge directly to a storm drain pipe that led to Hayden Creek. Upon making this discovery, the contract employee alerted the junior wastewater treatment operator for the Clinton facility and showed him the hose and ongoing wastewater bypass. These two individuals then shut off the hose at approximately 3:10 p.m.
At 3:30 p.m., the contract employee notified his non-Unilever supervisor about his observations, and was urged to notify the Safety, Health and Environmental (SHE) manager of the Clinton facility. The SHE manager received a call from the contract employee between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m. After asking the contract employee to send her an email describing his observations, the SHE manager went to the waste treatment area between 3:45 and 4:00 p.m. and observed foamy water and signs of recent discharge at the inlet of the storm drain pipe. The SHE manager notified the plant manager, took pictures, and observed the downstream oil/water separator. Despite the requirement that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) be notified within two hours of the detection of such a bypass, Unilever chose not notify the DEEP within this two-hour window.
On December 6, 2008, the SHE manager referred the matter to counsel for Unilever for further investigation and notification of DEEP. The next day, in response to the SHE manager’s request, the contract employee sent the SHE manager an email detailing his observations of the bypass and stating “[t]his is not the first time I’ve seen this done at your facility, I’ve seen this on two previous occasions. At that time, however, I was still trying to learn the system as quickly as possible and didn’t understand the significance of what I was viewing.” In the email, the contract employee opined that the senior operator had performed the intentional bypass and had “done this on several occasions, and perhaps more often than we care to know.”
On December 8, 2008, three days after being notified of the illegal discharge, the Unilever plant manager interviewed the two wastewater treatment operators and the contract employee who had initially discovered the bypass. All three individuals denied any responsibility for the bypass and indicated that they did not know who was responsible, although the contract employee again stated that he believed that the senior operator was responsible. From these interviews, the plant manager did not determine who was responsible for the bypass or confirm whether any prior bypasses had occurred. Later that day, the plant manager sent an email to his superior within the organization indicating that “we had somebody by pass [sic] the waste treatment process and put water into the storm water system . . .working with legal on how to handle the DEP [sic], if at all.”
On December 8, a DEEP compliance inspector was on-site at the Clinton facility for an unrelated reason. Unilever again failed to notify the on-site DEEP representative of the bypass that had occurred. On approximately December 10, Unilever notified the DEEP for the first time of the discharge that occurred five days earlier on December 5. This written notification occurred within the required five-day time period for the mandatory written report. Unilever also disclosed the discharge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a written submission dated December 16, 2008.
Unilever conducted its own internal investigation of the December 2008 incident. In subsequent conversations and written communications with federal and state authorities throughout 2009 and 2010, Unilever claimed it was unable to conclusively determine who was responsible for the bypass, and mischaracterized the incident as an isolated, “one-off” incident that may have been the work of unknown “vandals.”
An extensive EPA investigation revealed the truth about what had happened. The junior operator admitted to the EPA that he intentionally bypassed the system on December 5. EPA further concluded that for an extended period of time, perhaps as long as two years prior to December 2008, the wastewater treatment operators routinely bypassed the system on a weekly basis, discharging approximately 1,500 gallons of partially treated wastewater at a time to the storm drain that led to Hayden Creek. EPA’s investigation established that these bypasses were concealed from and unknown to Unilever management, including the SHE manager and the plant manager. Unilever’s management was aware, however, both that the operators were not properly overseeing the wastewater treatment system and that the system was not properly functioning:
- The strength, flow, and variability of the facility’s wastewater made it difficult to treat. System upsets and capacity limitations often necessitated that wastewater be trucked off-site for treatment at a cost of approximately $1500 per truckload. The treatment system operators had authority to call for trucking if needed for wastewater treatment.
- Portions of the treatment system were old and in need of repair and maintenance. Equipment replacements and system improvements recommended by outside consultants were not fully implemented, although some corrective measures were completed.
- The treatment system required constant operator attention and adjustment. Nevertheless, during 2008, the senior operator was often absent. The junior operator did not possess the required license or training to qualify him to operate the system independently for extended periods of time without supervision, yet he was allowed by Unilever to do so.
- Although the waste treatment operators were licensed by the State of Connecticut and subject to applicable permit requirements, they required oversight to properly operate the plant. That oversight was inconsistent and the operators were allowed to act autonomously.
In December 2012, Unilever ceased manufacturing operations at the Clinton facility.
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 N. Chatigny scheduled sentencing for March 3, 2014.
Under the terms of a binding plea agreement, if accepted by the court, Unilever will be placed on probation for three years and pay a fine of $1 million. At the time of sentencing, Unilever intends to bring to the court’s attention that it made a $3.5 million payment to the Connecticut Statewide Supplemental Environmental Project Account (SEP) administered by DEEP. Of that money, $2.5 million will be used to fund the Connecticut Resiliency and Climate Adaptation Center, which will conduct research, outreach and education projects related to the effects of rising sea levels. In addition, $500,000 will be used to design and construct a fishway at the Chapman Mill Pond in Clinton, and $500,000 will be used to fund environmentally beneficial projects proposed by the Town of Clinton, including the acquisition of open space.
Unilever also has agreed to periodic environmental compliance inspections by an outside auditor at all of its manufacturing locations in the U.S, and to certify, within one year of sentencing, that all of its employees at these facilities who perform or manage work subject to environmental compliance requirements have received basic environmental compliance training. In addition, all Unilever employees who are responsible for advising these facilities with respect to mandatory notifications to be made to state and federal environmental agencies must complete additional training to ensure they understand the legal notification requirements under applicable environmental laws.