District houses thermal power plants, coal mines, chemical factory

The Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh is precariously perched on the threshold of an environment disaster with a new study having found high levels of mercury in the environment as well as in the bodies of local residents.

Sonbhadra, which is co-terminous to Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar, is the second largest district in the State after Lakhimpur Kheri.

The study, conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), says Sonbhadra was declared a critically-polluted area about two years ago; and it continues to be so today. Mercury is a neurotoxin which affects the central nervous system and causes damage to the renal system.

The study, conducted in 2011-12, was released by CSE Director-General Sunita Narain here on Friday. She said the study reveals a sordid tale of pollution, poverty, non-compliance of environmental norms, official apathy and disease. “Sonbhadra is part of the resource-rich Singrauli area which is the country’s industrial powerhouse with massive coal reserves and many power plants. And by that yardstick, its people should have been prosperous and happy. But it is not the case,” said Ms. Narain.

CSE Deputy Director-General Chandra Bhushan claimed the district residents had approached the agency for studying the pollution and health problems in the district. He added that 19 samples of blood, hair and nails from people suffering health-related maladies, 23 samples of water, including groundwater, seven soil samples, five samples of cereals and three samples of fish from the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar reservoir were collected for the study.

“Frightening signs of mercury poisoning were found after laboratory tests were conducted on the samples, with mercury being found in 84 per cent of the blood samples, which is six times more than the level considered safe”, Mr. Bhushan said. While mercury was found in 58 per cent human hair, the study found that the groundwater in Sonbhadra had been contaminated by the metal.

The CSE study further revealed that the reservoir was contaminated with mercury. The fish in the area were found to be contaminated with methylmercury, the study noted.

Attributing mercury contamination to thermal power plants, coal mines and a chemical factory owned by a private group, the CSE study demanded that mercury standards should be developed for thermal power plants, coal mines and coal washeries. It added that all non-complying industries in the region should be shut down till they fulfil the pollution control norms.

Coal reserves in Singrauli amount to about one billion tonne. In Sonbhadra district, coal mining is to the tune of 17 million tonnes per year and the installed capacity of the thermal power plants is 9940 MW, the study says.

Ms. Narain said a 1998 study on mercury pollution in Singrauli region was conducted by the Lucknow-based Indian Institute for Toxicology Research (IITR). Sixty-six per cent of the 1,200 people examined by IITR had more than 5 ppb (parts of mercury per billion). The study also found high level of mercury in the fish and water, she said. “The study was not made public as it was funded by NTPC Limited.”

The Central Board of Pollution Control also tested air and water in Singrauli on the direction of the Supreme Court and found high levels of mercury. Ms. Narain alleged “there was a conspiracy of silence and denial as far as mercury pollution in Singrauli is concerned”.

She demanded that a moratorium on new industries in Sonbhadra district, removed on the basis of an action plan, be re-imposed and an action plan for mercury developed.

  • Sonbhadra was declared critically-polluted area two years ago; it continues to be so today: CSE

  • “A 1998 study on mercury pollution in Singrauli was not made public as it was funded by NTPC”