The Kubota Coincidence?
It is a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie that finds a company with the same name, in the same business responsible for the same hazardous consequences of asbestos contamination in Japan and Brazil. And yet, no one has been able to establish a definitive link between Japan's Kubota Corporation and Grupo Kubota, (Kubota Group) the former owner of a heavily asbestos-contaminated derelict site in Sao Paulo State.1
The awakening of public awareness about Japan's asbestos epidemic is popularly referred to as the Kubota Shock. This nickname was given after the Kubota Corporation announced on June 29, 2005 that scores of workers at its former Kanzaki asbestos-cement pipe plant had contracted asbestos cancer. By March 2006, 105 employees from this factory, 10% of the total workforce, had died of asbestos-related diseases. The announcement of the asbestos fatalities by the Kubota Corporation, a long-established and well-respected company,2 seemed to open the floodgates and within days admissions by other companies created an asbestos storm throughout the Japanese media. Since 2006, officials from Kubota have offered apologies and compensation to former employees and local people exposed to asbestos liberated by Kubota's manufacturing operations at factories such as the ones in Kanzaki and Amagasaki City.3
Although the website of the Kubota Corporation (Japan) lists, amongst its overseas subsidiaries and affiliates Kubota Brasil Ltda.,4 it cannot be ascertained if this company is the same as Brazil's Kubota Group (Grupo Kubota). In recent weeks, a series of newspaper articles has appeared about asbestos contamination in premises formerly owned by the Grupo Kubota in the César de Sousa District in the city of Mogi das Cruzes, 40 kilometers east of the Greater São Paulo area. In three industrial-sized sheds at this location, asbestos-containing brakes and clutch parts for trains had been produced for 20+ years by a company set up in 1974 by Yoshimi Kubota.5
Upon the cessation of Kubota's manufacturing operations, no attempt was made to secure or clean-up the site; as a consequence, members of the public, who can easily gain entry to the premises through fallen barbed wire fences, half-opened doors and broken roofs, have been endangered by exposure to sacks of raw chrysotile asbestos fiber, estimated to contain 5 tons of asbestos, and heaps of contaminated waste.6
Even before the Grupo Kubota ceased trading, the authorities had launched an investigation following from three fines the company had received for the insecure storage of hazardous materials. When manufacturing operations ceased, more fines were issued because of the company's failure to clean-up the site. It is believed that the site was bought at auction in November 2006 by Osvaldo Augusto da Conceição who then passed ownership to another company, Antonio Sales. Various estimates have been made about the likely cost of decontamination of the site with R$930,000-R$1 million (US $421,000 - $452,000) being the highest.
Towards the end of March 2009, news broke about the frustrated efforts of local people, civil servants and politicians to tackle the environmental pollution. Attempts by Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi to trace former workers from this site were unfruitful; local trade unions seemed disinclined to assist this process. Officials from the Grupo Kubota cannot be found and the current owners of the site seem disinclined to undertake the expense of dealing with pollution they did not cause. Plans by the municipal authority to instigate a civil lawsuit against the polluter for environmental crimes are being considered; those found guilty could go to jail for 1-4 years. Whether the environmental criminals will be prosecuted remains to be seen; if, however, legal action is taken perhaps Brazilian lawyers will establish once and for all the parentage of Grupo Kubota and the links, if they exist, to the Japanese Kubota Corporation?
April 5, 2009
1 The Grupo Kubota consisted of: Kubota Freios e Equipamentos Ferroviários Ltda., Freo Bus Equipamentos Rodoviários Ltda., Freo Auto Equipamentos Ltda., E Freiobras Indústria e Comércio Ltda.
2 The latest figures available show that Kubota's 15,299 employees generated global sales of US$7.8 billion (1998). The Kubota Corporation, which was established in 1930, now has principal affiliates and subsidiaries in Japan, Australia, Brazil, the U.S., the UK, France, Spain, Germany, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines etc.
Address: Rua Dora Maria Fidelis No. 171, Diadema, Sao Paulo, Brasil
5 Pacca S. Material tóxico está abandonado. [Toxic Material is Abandoned.] March 20, 2009.