The Multinational Monitor


N E W S   M O N I T O R

Pennwalt - Under Pressure - Cleans Up Mercury Contamination

by David Kowalewski

Workers and government officials in Nicaragua have kept a tight watch to ensure that an American chemical plant in Managua cleans up its act.

In 1980, an investigation by Nicaragua's then new Sandinista government found that Electroquimica Pennwalt (Elpesa), an affiliate of the Philadelphia-based multinational corporation Pennwalt, was responsible for massive mercury contamination in Lake Managua. When the government probed further, it discovered that 37 per cent of the workers at the chemical plant showed signs of mercury poisoning (see MM, May 1981).

Mercury, used by Elpesa to process chlorine and chlorine byproducts, can cause severe damage to the central nervous system and the brain. The government charged the lakeside company with dumping as much as 40 tons of it into Lake Managua over 12 years. At the time, the lake had been a source of fish for Managua residents. (Since then, fishing has virtually ceased.) The government also revealed that the company had permitted pools of mercury to cover the floor and coat machinery at the factory. Vaporized mercury in the air was 12 times the level declared safe by U.S. regulatory agencies.

The findings prompted a series of demands by workers for strict monitoring of mercury levels. These demands were endorsed by the government. "We were obliged to take drastic measures with the enterprise," states a January 1983 report by the Ministry of Labor, which required the company to clean the worksite regularly and to purchase new, less dangerous equipment. "We are changing leaky pipelines," claims Elpesa Maintenance Director Morris Sallick, "and are replacing 20 of 40 pumps. We hope all the bad machinery will be gone by mid-1984."

Worker and government pressure has also resulted in daily visits by a physician, construction of separate shower and eating facilities away from dangerous worksites, the supply of hardhats and safety masks, weekly visits by a neurologist, the posting of safety signs, instruction of new workers on the dangers of mercury exposure, and a complete shutdown of the plant every three months for a maintenance overhaul.

Elpesa must also submit regular physician and neurologist reports and three monthly statements concerning mercury levels to the Ministry of Labor. "In the beginning we had to pressure [the company]," says Nicaragua's Director of Occupational Safety and Health, Mario Epelman, "but now they are conscious of the situation." A Labor Ministry representative visits the plant weekly - "day or night," Epelman adds.

Yet Elpesa's workers did not rely entirely on government officials or corporate managers to ensure their own safety. A factory worker "association of inventors," as Elpesa's Morris Sallick calls them, created a unique cooling system to condense mercury vapors, keeping them to safe levels. On their own initiative, the laborers built the system using on-site materials. "They even improved the original designs," Sallick proudly remarked.

The efforts by workers and the Ministry appear to have succeeded in limiting workers' exposure to the lethal substance. While an inspection of the plant in 1981 revealed that the quantity of mercury in the air of the plant's cell section was 12 times the amount recommended by the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the present level has fallen below the recommended level.

However, Elpesa is still dumping mercury into Lake Managua along with its waste products, although Epelman claims that improvements in the machinery have reduced the amount of pollution. The plant has been authorized to receive a $4 million loan from the Central American Bank to study and purchase expensive waste-control equipment, although they have yet to receive the funds. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Labor predicts that the new equipment will be installed by late 1983 and then "the amount of mercury (flowing into the lake) will be zero."

The people of Nicaragua hope that he's right.

David Kowalewski teaches international relations at Siena College in New York. He visited Nicaragua in December 1982.

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