Clean-up standards for toxic mercury leaked by Hindustan Unilever into the soil on its factory premises in Kodaikanal have been relaxed, following the recommendation of the company's consultant to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.
The move has provoked an outcry from former workers and residents of the area, who fear that high levels of mercury contamination will damage their health and destroy the ecologically sensitive forest area.
“More than 100 kg of mercury will still be left in the soil after the clean-up. This will act as a ticking ecological time-bomb,” said V.R. Rajagopal Dorai Rajah, president of the Tamil Nadu Alliance against Mercury (TAAM), a coalition of 25 organisations of residents and former workers in Kodaikanal.
Hindustan Unilever's thermometer factory was shut down in 2001 by the TNPCB following revelations that the company leaked mercury into the Pambar Shola Forest Reserve for 17 years. Data later provided by the company estimated the leak at 1.3 tonnes, and a further 366 kg on the factory premises.
Fresh information revealed through submissions under the RTI Act show that the accepted volume of mercury per kilogram of soil from the factory site was diluted from the Dutch residential standard of 10mg/kg to a maximum of 25mg/kg in July 2008. The documents show that in June 2007 Hindustan Unilever's consultant National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) recommended the change to an ‘expert committee,' appointed by the TNPCB on the directions of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on hazardous wastes. NEERI is also a member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
Two local residents' committees formed in the wake of the closure — the Working Committee and the Local Area Environment Committee — were cut out of consultations about the clean-up since 2005, TAAM claims.
This is a test case that will set precedents for safe levels of mercury in the country and the process should be transparent and inclusive, Nityanand Jayaraman, environmental activist, said.
TAAM has written to the TNPCB, the government of Tamil Nadu and the Union government demanding informed participation of residents in overseeing the factory site remediation. They have called for a Citizen's Oversight Committee and asked for the site to be handed over to the Forest Department for Shola reforestation.