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Liberia Says Firestone Polluting Water


Fifty kilometers east of the capital, Harbel has always been a company town. Named after Firestone founder Harvey Firestone and his wife Idabelle, Harbel has been the center of the world's largest single natural rubber operation for more than 75 years.

In a country still recovering from years of civil war and desperate for more jobs, the eight million rubber trees at Harbel are crucial to Liberia's economic future. The plantation was one of the first businesses to reopen after the fighting and employs more than 7,000 workers in a nation where 80 percent of people are unemployed.

Firestone workers receive paid vacation, subsidized food, and a retirement pension along with free housing, medical care, and education for their children.

But people living around the plantation say it is polluting their drinking water. John Powell is the town chief of the area known as Kpan Yah.

"We can't drink it now. It is really polluted," he said.

Powell said villagers used to collect drinking water from the Farmington River because there are few hand pumps in the area. Now he says even the well water is contaminated, and Firestone has done nothing to help.

"We told the people that they polluted the water, this stream here it goes to our place. They denied the allegation. That is was not so. But now it is true to the other people who have seen it now," he added.

Liberia's Environmental Protection Agency has tested the water the plantation is pumping into the river.

"Firestone got this pollution. It has actually taken place. It is attributable to Firestone operations," said EPA head Jerome Nyenkan

Nyenkan said he is surprised because Firestone has a history of abiding by Liberian environmental laws.

"So we are shocked that this pollution would be emitted by Firestone operations. So we don't expect Firestone to escape the EPA's wrath," he said.

Firestone officials at the Harbel plantation declined to be interviewed for this story. But they did provide a written statement that said the facility has recently constructed a new "state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar water treatment facility that processes water from its factory through equalization and clarification tanks" before pumping that water into constructed wetlands on company property for "natural, biological treatment."

Firestone said process water is not discharged into the Farmington River. Even so, the release said the company regularly samples water from that river to ensure compliance with recognized water quality standards from other rubber-producing countries as part of a 2008 agreement with the government in Monrovia.

EPA head Nyenkan said the penalties for violating Liberia's Environmental Protection Management Law are clear.

"Anyone who discharges poisonous, toxic, or noxious substance into any water body leading to the death of marine creatures or even harming the human person, on conviction, that person is liable to a fine not exceeding 50,000 United States dollars or to a jail sentence not exceeding 20 years or both," he said.

Firestone has extended its 99-year lease in Liberia through 2041 with an option through 2091 as part of a deal that includes promises to provide free rubber stumps to grow more trees to qualified local farmers and to sell them agricultural supplies at cost. The renegotiated lease also includes improvements in housing, education, water and sanitation.

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