Community demands answers on rubber pollution

People living next to Firestone Natural Rubber Company’s plantation in Harbel, 45km outside of Liberia’s capital Monrovia, say pollution from the concession is destroying their health, ruining their livelihoods and even killing residents.

On 4 June parliamentarians called on the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare why the agency has not yet published the results of a 22 May EPA investigation into the allegations.

Firestone’s Liberia rubber concession is the second largest rubber producer in Africa and employs some 14,000 Liberians.

Residents of the town of Kpanyarh, just next to Firestone's rubber plantation in Harbel, say the creek from which they fish and drink their water in the dry season has been contaminated with toxins.

“We used to fish and drink the water,” 67-year-old Kpanyarh resident John Powell told IRIN on a visit to the creek which runs just outside the town. He said the water became toxic in October 2008. “We can’t drink it any longer. Some of our people have already died from this. We have drawn Firestone’s attention to our plight but they have ignored it.”

Residents are falling ill with diarrhoea after drinking at the site, and at least three have died as a result of drinking the polluted water since it first emitted toxins in October 2008, Powell said.

In mid-May on an IRIN visit to the area, acidic fumes emanating from the creek caused people’s eyes to water and made it difficult to breathe.

Mary Sackie, 49, a fisherwoman who chairs a local women’s group in the town, said she used to earn as much as US$10 a day from fishing in the river but since it became polluted she has given this up and does petty trade instead.

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“[Fishing] is how we used to feed our families, but since the water got polluted life is very unbearable,” Sackie said. “All the fish died…even our wells are now affected. We lack good drinking water.”

After receiving complaints from residents the EPA sent a team of environmental experts to the site, according to EPA Director Jerome Nyenkan.

“It was established that many creeks are polluted and they could no longer be used by the local people.” He said EPA is “troubled” about Kpanyarh residents’ situation.

“The environmental laws of Liberia are very clear on this. Any institution or person who discharges toxic waste and/or dangerous substances into any water body leading to the death of marine creatures or even harming people, will be fined $50,000 or subject to a jail sentence,” said Nyenkan.

Under Liberian law the person or institution responsible for the pollution must also restore resources to an appropriate standard.

In a 3 June statement sent to IRIN Firestone Rubber said: “Firestone Liberia is committed to protecting the health and welfare of our employees, neighbours and fellow citizens of Liberia…That commitment includes our treatment of the water used in our plant.”

The operations includes a multi-million-dollar water treatment facility which was developed in collaboration with Robert Knight, a wetlands expert, according to the statement provided by Rufus Kormoh, Firestone’s Liberia spokesperson.

Since the facility was set up tests have confirmed water quality is “excellent”, it says.

Relations between Liberians and Firestone Rubber have been bitter for years, with a series of strikes and allegations from community members and staff of destruction of the ecosystem, unbearable living and working conditions and child labour. Communities have also charged that the company has reneged on its corporate social responsibilities.

In August 2008 the Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia negotiated a new labour agreement with the company, which calls for improved wages, health and safety and housing and education standards.