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Coca-Cola plant pollution probe claims discounted

By P. Venugopal

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Oct. 18. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) withheld crucial details on the presence of heavy metals in samples obtained from drinking water sources around Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Kerala's Palakkad district, when it reported to the State Government on the matter as it was directed to do in September. This is revealed by details of the study obtained by The Hindu.

The details of the KSPCB study show that hazardous levels of cadmium, a known carcinogen, were detected in water samples from two wells close to the bottling plant. These details discount, even contradict, the findings publicised by the KSPCB on September 29 that water in the wells located around the plant was not contaminated with heavy metals.

The Central Laboratory of the KSPCB, which conducted the tests, reported cadmium concentrations of 0.01 mg per litre in one sample and 0.02 mg per litre in another. One of these two wells, whose water tested 0.02 mg per litre of cadmium, is a panchayat facility providing drinking water to scores of families. The other belongs to the family of Manikyam Chettiar, who had used the sludge generated by the bottling plant as fertilizer in his field.

In drinking water, the threshold limit for cadmium is 0.01 mg per litre, according to the `standards and guidelines' prescribed by the KSPCB.

In July, a British Broadcasting Corporation website had reported "dangerous" levels of cadmium, besides lead, in the sludge supplied by the factory to the farmers of the area to be used as fertilizer. The report had warned of the possibility of the contamination reaching the food chain and the drinking water sources of the area.

Water samples from five other wells in the tribal colonies around the bottling plant, which too were collected by the KSPCB in August and tested at its Central Laboratory, were found to be devoid of cadmium contamination. Total hardness of the water was found to be more than 1,000 mg per litre in five of the wells on the eastern side of the plant and 820 mg per litre and 1,260 mg per litre in two wells on the western side. Such levels of total hardness make water unfit for drinking, according to the `standards and guidelines' of the KSPCB.

The complaint of the villagers and also the local panchayat authority, who are pressing for the closure of the Coca-Cola unit, is that over-exploitation of groundwater resources by the plant has not only depleted the water level in the wells, but also rendered the water unfit for drinking.

"The local people complain about the appearance of a milky sludge on heating the well water. The hardness of the well water seems to be the main reason for this phenomenon. The high levels of total hardness detected in these wells could be due to other natural reasons. The raw water used by the company was not found to be having such levels of hardness," the KSPCB secretary, K.V. Indulal, said.

The environmentalist and former president of the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad, M.K. Prasad, however, said that over-exploitation of groundwater could lead to increased hardness of well water. "When water is drawn from the ground in very large volumes using mechanical devices, salts present in the earth can get dissolved in the groundwater in increasing quantities," he said.

An earlier study done by the KSPCB under the supervision of its chairman, Paul Thachil, had confirmed the BBC's findings about hazardous levels of cadmium in the sludge generated by the plant. Following that study, the Government directed Mr. Indulal to undertake a more detailed study.

This second study, which identified cadmium contamination in the wells, did not find excessive levels of any heavy metals in the sludge samples collected from the plant premises or from the fields where it was used as fertilizer.

"However, as a matter of utmost precaution, we have directed the company to handle the sludge as per the stipulations for managing hazardous waste. The company is following this direction," Mr. Indulal said.

He confirmed that he had received the results of the tests done on sludge and water samples collected from Kanjikode, in another part of Palakkad district, where Pepsicola is operating a similar bottling plant. "We require a reconfirmation of the reading from one of the sludge samples, which is not consistent with the readings from the rest of the samples tested. We shall finalise the report on the Pepsi bottling plant only after that," he said.

When asked about the contradictions involved in the claims made by the KSPCB on September 29 and the actual findings of the study obtained by The Hindu, Mr. Indulal said: "We reported the facts to the Government."

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