The Argentinean tanning sector has recently suffered the effect of actions which, by having the environment as an excuse, have spread suspicion on the way tanneries operate. Various motives – at times real estate industry interests and industrial or other productive sectors’ policies – have had the very sensitive matter of pollution as their common denominator.

The attacks reached the mass media taking up whole pages in national newspapers and extensive time slots in popular journalistic programmes on Argentinean television and the tanning industry has become worried about the possible repercussions.

It is important to point out that, at the moment, the tanning industry is doing very well in the international market with exports reaching an annual turnover of US$1,000 million. In the last decade, Argentinean tanneries have undergone an outstanding evolution both in terms of management and technology and, at the same time, have clearly shown their concern with the environment through large investments in effluent treatment.

Arlei are among the various companies hit by the accusations. This company, which have been in operation for over 60 years, are a typical family business that have managed to turn their structure into a professional set-up applying modern organisational concepts. Third generation members of the Leiser family, owners of Arlei, are on the company’s board of directors.

Arlei have been certified for ISO 9001 (RW TÜV) and QS 9000 – quality systems for the motor industry and should obtain ISO 14000 accreditation before the end of the year. Arlei’s production is sought by the world’s main car and furniture manufacturers.

The company employ 2,000 people who work in three industrial units occupying 100,000 m2 of built-up area.

The group have a vegetable tanning section which manufactures shoe insoles, ready-cut soles and sides for leathergoods; another unit produces ready-to-use sofa covers. The main tannery, located in Las Toscas, Province of Santa Fe, produces synthetic tanning upholstery and shoe upper leather mostly for the US market.

The region of Las Toscas is one of the areas affected by the contamination accusations. Here, the accusers managed to attract the attention of a local neighbours’ association and some environmental organisations interested in gaining media attention. These groups presented water analysis results which, once checked by the provincial sanitation authorities, were categorically rejected due to their lack of technical accuracy.

Before the seriousness of the situation and the risk of being labelled for unscrupulous environmental conduct by society, the Leiser family entrusted various well-known and scientifically reputable research centres with studies which could put an end to the situation.

The investigation

In the first place, an investigation was done involving the company’s 1,200 employees (10% of the population of Las Toscas). The studies were ordered by an international insurance company specialised in labour-related matters and the tests were carried out in laboratories audited by toxicology professors of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry of the University of Buenos Aires. Eight different types of tests were carried out on 1,180 workers. The results did not exceed the acceptable maximums and the general average was found to be well below those maximum values.

Arlei also ordered a deep environmental impact study. Dr Nicolas Mazzeo was in charge of the evaluation of probable air contamination. Dr Mazzeo is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences and, in this case, he had the collaboration of the Faculty of Natural and Exact Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires.

The pollutants measured were carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and suspended solids. The concentration of each of these pollutants found was below the maximum values accepted by the WHO – World Health Organisation – and US Clean Air Act.

The concentration of benzene, ammonia, ethyl benzene and m-p-xylene was also measured at ground level around the tannery. The report states that in all cases, the concentration present was below the acceptable maximum values. In the case of hydrogen sulfide, it was mentioned that in some areas values exceeded the odour threshold which does not carry any toxicity risk.

The report, therefore, concludes that ‘the alleged contamination is non-existent and that the values detected do not endanger public health on the basis of all valid national and international legislation’.

On a different though related matter, Lidia Borello, Bachelor of Biological Sciences and member of the International Association for Environmental Hydrology (IAEH), carried out a study of the soil and underground water in the area surrounding the tannery, including Las Toscas.

The result of Borello’s investigation shows that the levels of trivalent chrome found in the sixteen soil samples analysed did not exceed the acceptable values for soil intended for residential use according to specific nationally and internationally standards. No concentration of phenolic substances was detected.

Arlei have ordered that the studies carried out as well as their results should be put at the disposal of the authorities, the people, environmental organisations and everybody else wishing to examine them.

Effluent plant

Arlei’s effluent treatment plant was built with Italian technology and it is currently the largest in the country. It is prepared to process the waste deriving from the daily production of over 8,000 hides.

This plant receives the beamhouse concentrated waste for catalytic oxidation, the concentrated tanning waste for tanning agent recovery and the general effluent generated by other industrial processes.

Once the sulfur and the chrome have been eliminated, the liquid effluent goes to the general pumping station in the treatment plant where the following treatment stages take place: screening, pumping, primary sedimentation, activated sludge treatment, final sedimentation and pumping into polishing lagoons.

At the same time, in separate operations, the concentrated liming sludge and the concentrated tanning effluent treatment is carried out.

The final effluent in the polishing lagoons shows acceptable levels of BOD, chrome and COD.

Trust and trustworthiness

In the last ten years, the sluggishness of Argentina’s legal system has led the public to give credit to accusations launched by the media instead of waiting for court decisions. There is no doubt that this situation jeopardises the point of view of fairness in cases of public impact.

The Arlei case is just one of three which took place in the past twelve months. The importance of the company in question is clear evidence that the accusers’ intention is to cause impact on public opinion. The fact that Arlei are a main international player as leather suppliers have led the directors and staff to assure the public that the main goal of their working structure is to turn Arlei into a trustworthy company for their customers and society alike.