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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 30, Dated July 31, 2010

One gram mercury can kill a 25-acre lake. A plant has leached mercury for 10 years into Kodai



The crying hills Kodaikanal’s position as a premier tourism destination is threatened by mercury poisoning

SITTING ATOP the Palni hills, Kodaikanal, the premier tourist destination of Tamil Nadu, does not evoke images of pollution. A winding road through the hills lifts you from the stifling heat of Madurai, 121 km away, to the mist-covered town. Along the upper reaches, a trained eye can glimpse thickets of dark green in the folds of the hills, bordered by carpets of grasslands. These are the shola forests of the Western Ghats.

Renowned for their ability to retain water and release it slowly, the shola grassland ecosystem forms an important catchment for many rivers, and are home to many endemic and highly endangered plant species, and to animals like the Nilgiri tahr, giant squirrel, jungle fowl and gaur.

There are three shola forests in Kodaikanal town alone. Unilever’s thermometer factory premises, now closed down, sits atop one. Every drop of water that falls on the factory site drains into the Pambar Shola. Chesebrough Pond’s, which Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) acquired in 1986, had relocated its thermometer factory from Watertown, New York, to this site in 1983. To get permission to construct the factory in a residential locality abutting an ecosensitive area, the company assured regulators that the factory was non-polluting.

Twenty-eight mercury workers have died over the last 10 years, says a former employee

In 2001, environmental groups and villagers exposed the thermometer factory’s dumping of several tonnes of toxic mercury-bearing waste in a scrapyard in a densely populated part of town. Faced with the evidence, and HUL’s admission of breach of law, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) shut the factory.

But in that waste lay the seeds of a long-term disaster. The factory site and the immediate surroundings are heavily contaminated, later reports assert. Nearly 10 years after, HUL’s deadly stain has spread beyond the hills, marking several government agencies who have helped HUL shut out public supervision and downgrade the clean-up.

“Kodaikanal is Tamil Nadu’s Bhopal. We have our own toxic legacy; our own story of betrayal at the hands of the government and the company,” says Mahindra Babu, a former worker at the factory. Babu now leads a campaign that wants the Anglo- Dutch multinational to rehabilitate mercury-exposed workers and clean up Kodaikanal’s tainted environment. Babu blames his frequent nasal bleeding and childlessness, on the five years he spent working with mercury in the factory. In the last 10 years of fighting HUL, he says he has seen 28 of his colleagues die, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

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S Sivaganam (top), a factory worker, suffers from brain tumour and spends Rs 4,000 per month on treatment; Another local, Vijayalakshmi (bottom), at the dentist’s. She has swollen gums, passes blood in her urine and has other gynaecological complications

“The TNPCB is presenting HUL with a roadmap to sidestep its responsibilities,” says Babu. “Just like in Bhopal, the government wants to shut people out so it can make things easy for the MNC,” he says. Babu’s allegations are confirmed by a 20 March 2010 letter to the Union environment ministry justifying the lack of public involvement in site remediation. In this letter, TNPCB claims a Supreme Court (SC)Monitoring Committee ordered it to wind up a key local oversight committee. In its place, a Scientific Experts Committee (SEC) was formed, TNPCB claims.

TNPCB’s responses to RTI queries are revealing. The SC committee had never asked for winding up of the local supervision committee. And the SEC was never authorised to oversee site remediation.

In December 2004, instructed by the SC committee, TNPCB had formed a Local Area Environment Committee (LAEC), with representation of ex-workers — to supervise all aspects of remediation. Simultaneously, a working committee with local residents’ representation was also formed with a similar mandate. Both committees functioned for less than six months, after which, TNPCB ignored the two and took all further decisions using the SEC. Earlier, decisions were vetted by the two local committees and conveyed to HUL. But, beginning August 2005, the public was shut out, and HUL and its consultants enjoyed full access to all meetings, according to K Gopalakrishnan, a former worker and a member of the LAEC. Documents obtained through an RTI also confirm Gopalakrishnan’s allegations.

CONTRARY TO HUL’s claims that the factory was non-polluting, a 2002 report by the company’s consultant, assessing the extent of contamination, admits that more than 1.3 tonnes of mercury was discharged into the Pambar Shola, through which flows the Pambar River and eventually into the Vaigai River — a major source of fish, drinking water and irrigation. Moreover, at least 98 tonnes of mostly mercury-tainted scrap was sold illegally.

“The Board was serious until 2003, and did everything transparently, when Sheela Rani Chunkath was chairperson,” recalls Babu. During this time, HUL had to export 290 tonnes of wastes.

It was after the visit of the SC Committee in 2004 that things began to go wrong. The Committee directed the Board to “make an assessment of extent of contamination”. It also said, “A suitable agency may be appointed by the Board as project management consultant for site remediation”.

Ignoring this call for independent data and oversight, the Board allowed HUL to hire Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) as its consultant, to assess contamination and supervise remediation. Dr Tapan Chakrabarti, who had been part of the SC team that castigated the factory in September 2004, had now become NEERI’s Director, and, by mid-2005, landed key contracts for NEERI with HUL, arising out of the team’s orders.

ON 16 AUGUST 2005, a two-member Tamil Nadu sub-committee of the SCMonitoring Committee, comprising Dr DB Boralkar and Dr Claude Alvares, wrote to the TNPCB, highlighting the irregularity. “The decontamination is being conducted by NEERI in association with HUL, and HUL is directly financing the consultant. This is not in keeping with the SCMC’s directions which require the work of remediation and rehabilitation be done through the Board.” Strangely, within a month, this sub-committee was replaced by another one with three new members, which overlooked the violation and NEERI’s conflict of interest.

Even after clean-up, the possibility of damage to forest area from mercury remains

NEERI was against imposing stringent clean-up norms on its clients, arguing in its report that “the benefits likely to accrue out of stricter norms are to be compared against the additional cost to HUL that maybe incurred while undertaking such projects.” And so, where HUL had originally stated it will remove 7,358 tonnes of contaminated soil, the Experts Committee endorsed NEERI’s recommendation that only 3,477 tonnes (48 percent) needed to be removed.

On 19 June 2008, the Board granted “permission to HUL to commence soil remediation”, taking 25 mg per kg of mercury in the soil to be safe, which is 25 times less stringent than what is allowed in the UK, where Unilever has one of its headquarters. To put it in perspective: one gram of mercury is sufficient to poison a 25-acre lake. A potent neurotoxin, mercury and its deadlier cousin methyl mercury can affect the aquatic food chain ending up in the fish we consume. This means that even after clean-up, the possibility that there will be enough mercury onsite to leach into and damage the adjacent forest areas remains.

Jayaraman is a Kodaikanal-based independent journalist



The spillover HUL premises in Kodaikanal

We asked the Hindustan Unilever Limited to respond to the allegations in our story. Excerpts from an email reply

We understand the HUL used to operate a mercury thermometer operations plant in Kodaikanal. And that the factory was forced to shut down in 2001 after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board took cognisance of citizens reporting mercury contamination in the area. Can you please clarify the authenticity of these reports? What were the circumstances which led to the closure of the factory?

On March 7, 2001, NGOs drew attention of HUL to the presence of mercury tainted glass scrap in a scrap yard at Kodaikanal. On March 8, 2001, HUL stopped the manufacturing operations immediately on its own and instituted an investigation into the matter.

Following closure of the factory, can you tell us what happened to the toxic wastes? What kind of clean-up operations did HUL undertake following the factory closure?

HUL investigation revealed that mercury tainted glass scrap (containing residual mercury approximately 0.15%) was sold in breach of company’s established procedures. HUL engaged the services of M/s URS, an international environmental consultant, for site assessment and risk assessment. As an immediate step, HUL brought back in June 2001 the glass scrap from the scrap yard to factory premises for safe storage. In August 2001, five silt traps were constructed to prevent discharge of soil from the site to the Pambar valley, the only direction into which the water flows out from the site. The URS study report was submitted to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), the statutory authorities, in June 2002. The study concluded that there is no adverse impact on environment and health, except limited impact on the soil at some spots of the factory, which requires remediation. Thereafter, from March to May 2003, HUL exported around 290 MT, all the mercury bearing materials such as mercury contained glass scrap, semi and finished thermometers, virgin mercury and ETP sludge to a mercury recycler in USA.

From February to May 2006, the plant & machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing at the site were decontaminated and disposed as scrap to industrial recyclers. The protocol for decontamination was prepared by URS, modified by Prof. Dr. Shyam R. Asolekar of IIT Mumbai, verified by NEERI, reviewed and recommended by the Scientific Experts Committee (constituted by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee) and approved by the TNPCB. The Scientific Experts Committee appreciated the decontamination work carried out by HUL.

Currently, HUL is undertaking remediation of contaminated soil within the factory premises following the protocol prepared by NEERI, reviewed and recommended by the Scientific Experts Committee and approved by TNPCB. Pre-remediation work has already commenced. All the necessary remediation equipment has been installed at the site and remediation work will commence once the consent is granted by TNPCB.

There are reports that the consultant company, Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), hired by HUL to supervise decontamination operations has been financed by HUL earlier. Can you please clarify the exact relationship between HUL and NEERI? Are you satisfied that there is no conflict of interest that arises from this relationship?

HUL did not decide to engage NEERI on its own. HUL was directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to associate NEERI, as an independent expert, for the remedial measures.

HUL is paying for all the costs of the cleanup and remediation at the site. The consultancy service rendered by NEERI was paid by HUL in line with this principle. There is no conflict of interest since NEERI is not the decision making authority. NEERI provides scientific expertise as an independent expert for the remedial measures. Decisions are taken by TNPCB and they in turn consult the Scientific Experts Committee for scientific recommendation as required.

Can HUL guarantee that the soil remediation process, that it has currently undertaken in the region, will remove all traces of mercury and bring mercury contamination levels down to internationally accepted standards?

The remediation of contaminated soil within the factory premises is being undertaken as per the remediation protocol and standards approved by TNPCB.

The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee directed NEERI to take up a Risk Assessment Study to develop soil remediation criteria for the site. Based on the study submitted by NEERI and the recommendation of the Scientific Experts Committee, the TNPCB has set soil remediation criteria. The clean-up criterion was based on the Risk Assessment Study and the need for preservation of local ecology. Remediation criteria based on site specific risk assessment study is internationally followed procedure for remediation.

Are there any other mercury thermometer factories that HUL operates in India? Can you please give us details?

No, HUL does not have any mercury thermometer factories in India.

Mercury in glass thermometer factory was set up at Kodaikanal, India, by erstwhile Ponds India Limited in 1983 for export markets. It came under the management of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) through acquisition in September 1998 and was closed on March 8, 2001.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 30, Dated July 31, 2010

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