Solvay to cut waste discharged off Italy, ending tussle with activist

Belgian chemicals group Solvay (SOLB.BR) said it plans to cut industrial waste discharged into the sea from soda-ash production on a Tuscan beach, in the wake of pressure from environmentalists and activist Bluebell Capital Partners. Solvay, which had previously pushed back on concerns the waste may be harmful, now plans to invest around 15 million euros ($14.96 million) to reduce the release of limestone residue into the sea at its facility in Rosignano, Italy, the company said in a statement on Tuesday. That will help cut the maximum it discharges into the sea by 20% compared to what regulators currently allow the company by 2030, it said. By 2040, that volume will drop to 40% below what the authorities have said it can release into the sea.

Solvay currently dumps 250,000 tons a year into the Mediterranean, a practice that has transformed the coastline, a stretch that has been dubbed the White Beaches, or Spiagge Bianche.

The company said it would also invest in a new soda ash production technology that could eliminate all limestone residues and halve CO2 emissions from the process by 2050. It didn’t immediately provide details on its new processes. Solvay’s practices on the Tuscan beach – a plant that’s been running for over a century – have drawn scrutiny from environmentalists, activist Bluebell and the UN special rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

Mercury from the plant has contaminated the seabed, a 2020 report by Tuscany’s environmental protection agency said, while a 2017 finding by the Institute for Coastal Marine Environment said the material discharged threatens seagrass.

“This is a great result for the environment and shows the impact that can be achieved with focus,” said Giuseppe Bivona, co-founder of Bluebell, which agreed to end its campaign to push for change at the company. Bluebell, owning one share in the company, last year urged Solvay to replace Chief Executive Ilham Kadri, saying she had failed to stop the discharge of limestone residues into the sea and was in “total denial” over its environmental and social impact.

Bluebell targets companies falling short on environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards as part of its own ESG pledge.

Some of the world’s largest companies are increasingly pledging to improve their environmental performance in response to climate change, driven by a growing pool of investors focused on the issue and as regulators eye tougher disclosure rules.

Last year, U.S. fund Engine No. 1 pushed to overhaul the board at oil company ExxonMobil (XOM.N), in part because of concerns over its climate actions, while Clearway Capital this year challenged TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) over its Russia links. Solvay, by law, must not exceed limits on the concentration of heavy metals in its discharge. The company wasn’t immediately available to comment on how the new processes will affect those concentrations.

In an annual report for 2021, the company said preliminary investigations were pending before the Criminal Court of Livorno regarding the contamination of certain areas around Rosignano.

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