Toxic enough to have gained some Hollywood notoriety, the ‘Erin Brockovich chemical’ hexavalent chromium is among the legacies that dozens of electroplating units have left behind in the Peenya Industrial Area. And, in doses that far exceed anything known from California’s Hinkley, the location of the American activist’s investigations.

A new survey of 72 borewells by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) completed this July has found that 20 of them are heavily polluted with chromium — a carcinogenic heavy metal associated with lung, kidney and skin disease — with some borewells recording levels 600 to 700 times the nationally permissible limit.

While the national limit for chromium is 0.05 mg/L, borewell tests found concentrations of the chemical compound to be as high as 35 mg/L and 29 mg/L in parts of Peenya, reflecting an absence of environmental norm enforcement in India’s largest industrial area.

Unorganised

Electroplating, a process that makes metal surfaces corrosion-proof, is one of the biggest and most unorganised industrial activities in Peenya, where engineering companies manufacture everything from JCBs to watches. “Companies choose to outsource electroplating to small unorganised units rather than have it in-house. The company saves money and the hassle of having to deal with toxic waste,” said Vaman Acharya, Chairman of the KSPCB.

Functioning out of sheds, often in their own backyard, dozens of informal electroplating units have for years carried out operations without infrastructure such as effluent collection tanks and impervious flooring, to prevent the heavy metal from leaching into the soil or groundwater, he adds. While the KSPCB has registered 57 such units, close to 150 electroplating units in Peenya employ 2,000 people, says member of the Peenya Industrial Association Ashwathnarayan Rao.

New norms

In a circular sent on July 1 to electroplating units, the KSPCB instructed them to adopt a set of five measures, including systems to collect and transport effluents to a common effluent treatment plant. “The KSPCB has even suggested that the units shift out of Peenya, but that is near impossible to do after so many years and with no alternative location proposed to them. By the end of the month, most of the registered industries would have conformed to prescribed norms.”

Even so, it will take a slow and long process of “natural dilution” for the existing chromium contamination to come down to permissible levels in Peenya, says S. Nandakumar, Senior Environmental Officer at KSPCB. “But then the soil is also polluted with chromium, so there is always the risk of compounding contamination of groundwater.” For the near future at least, it appears, Peenya’s toxic legacy is here to stay.

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