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The groundwater beneath their feet

In 1995, a chromium factory in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district shut shop leaving behind a legacy of contaminated soil and water. Two decades later, agriculture remains unviable and people continue to flock to hospitals with health issues. Serena Josephine M. reports

February 18, 2017 01:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

Toxic waste: Chromium in the factory premises in Ranipet,Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

Toxic waste: Chromium in the factory premises in Ranipet,Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

It is 7 a.m. in the morning. In Puliyankannu in Ranipet, in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu, Valliamma is busy preparing steaming cups of coffee and tea while a man sits next to her making masala vadai for the people milling around. When asked about the distinct chemical odour that surrounds the village, the 80-year-old woman shrugs nonchalantly. “It comes and goes,” she says. All the people in the village seem equally resigned to the polluted air they breathe even as they yearn for cleaner air and fresh groundwater, both of which are in short supply in this bustling industrial belt.

The factory’s tainted legacy

Across the village, on the side of the 730-acre State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) Industrial Complex (phase I), lies what has changed the lives of hundreds of villagers in the last two decades. It is the abandoned compound of the Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals Limited (TCCL). In its backyard is the source of the problem and it reaches out to the sky: 2.27 lakh tonnes of chromium-bearing solid waste from an area of two hectares. TCCL, before it shut operations in 1995, used to manufacture sodium dichromate, basic chromium sulphate and sodium sulphate.


All this chromium was dumped two decades ago when the factory closed for reasons that are not clear. The huge heap of yellow-coloured chromium, about three to five metres high, is so toxic that it finds place in the List of Hazardous Waste Contaminated Dump Sites in the Country , compiled by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

With its tanneries and chemical units, Ranipet in 2006 earned the dubious distinction of being one of the 10 cities/districts/villages on New York-based Blacksmith Institute’s list of worst polluted places in the world. Sadly, not much has changed in the decade since. Even now, during rains, leachate containing hexavalent chromium, a form of the metal that is more toxic to humans as it is carcinogenic, has been steadily flowing on the ground, with devastating effects. Widespread contamination of soil and groundwater, since 1995, is the factory’s legacy.


The abandoned factory is proof of the intensity of the contamination, as stagnant pools of rainwater have turned a dirty yellow. “When I was young, the water in the Puliyankannu Eri used to be so clean and clear that I could see my face in it,” Valliamma recalls. “In the last 20 to 30 years, industrial pollution, especially from TCCL, has polluted the lake water and it has become unusable. Water in many wells is also contaminated. Nobody constructs borewells here as the groundwater is polluted.”

Scanning through the pages of a regional newspaper, Dhanalakshmi, another resident, remembers how she used to take clothes to the lake 30 years ago to wash them. “Luckily, we get potable water from Thengal where the Ponnai and Palar rivers converge,” she says. “If water is one of the problems, air pollution is another. When there is wind, the smell of chemicals fills the air and we end up inhaling the polluted air. Many residents complain of frequent cold and respiratory illnesses.”

A few metres away from Puliyankannu is Karai, another village that has been experiencing the impact of groundwater pollution. Sipping his morning coffee, Selvan recalls how Karai Eri used to be in his younger days: “I used to drink water from the lake then. Now, the colour of the water scares me. Nobody uses it.”

An activist collects water from the site to show contamination.

An activist collects water from the site to show contamination.


Contaminated soil and water

If there is one livelihood that has borne the brunt of this haphazard dumping of toxic metal, it is agriculture. Villagers say agricultural production has dwindled over the years, particularly in Puliyankannu and Karai, due to polluted groundwater. “Nobody raises crops in this part of the region,” says Sekar, a resident. “Where is the source of good water to raise the crops?”


K. M. Balu, a farmer in Ranipet and coordinator of the Palar Paathukappu Kootiyakkam (Federation for Palar Protection), says the chromium dump site has destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of farmers: “Ten villages in and around the dump site, such as Avarankari, Puliyankannu, Karai, Puliyanthangal and SIPCOT, have been badly hit. There is no scope for agriculture here.”

The matter has been brought up with officials at various levels, repeatedly, but their pleas have gone unheard, Balu says. “Letters, protests... nothing has succeeded in drawing the attention of the authorities,” he says. A petition sent to the Collector and to the Chief Minister’s Special Cell three years ago has also led to nothing. Apart from his organisation, the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha, has also been unrelenting in its efforts to draw the attention of officials. “The Palar river, nearly 2 km from the site, is also contaminated. Three water bodies — the Kodathappu Eri, the Karai Eri and the Puliyankannu Eri — have been contaminated. Villagers stopped using the groundwater several years ago, and they do not allow their cattle to graze near these water bodies,” says L.C. Mani, the association’s district assistant secretary.

Mani estimates that at least 1,000 acres of agricultural land around TCCL have been rendered unfit for cultivation. “What will farmers do when water even in farm wells has not been spared from this contamination?” he asks. Crops such as paddy, ragi, maize and sugar cane were raised in this part of the region three decades ago but no longer, he says.

“Chromium is a heavy metal and so affects crops to a great extent,” says M. Pandiyan, professor and head at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra and Agricultural Research Station, Virinjipuram. “First, it does not allow the crops to grow as it prevents absorption of water and nutrients from the soil. Second, some crops that are tolerant, such as ragi, can withstand chromium and grow. But they end up absorbing it. Consuming them is dangerous as they can cause cancer.”

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, in its ‘Inventory and Mapping of Probably Contaminated Sites in India’, says the “Supreme Court Monitoring Committee had expressed serious concern over the extremely hazardous wastes dumped by Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals in the open environment in violation of the hazardous waste rules.”

On its part, the CPCB, through the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF), identified 12 contaminated sites in the country that included TCCL in Ranipet. It came up with a project, the ‘Remediation of hazardous waste contaminated dumpsites under NCEF project’. According to the CPCB’s online project documents, during its 20 years of operation from 1975 to 1995, TCCL generated and disposed huge quantities of hexavalent chromium-bearing waste on open land.

A natural outcome of this are concerns over the health of the villagers. Mani and another resident of Puliankannu, A. Babu, say villagers are facing several health hazards due to the pollution of both air and water. “We have been receiving many patients with asthma, both acute and chronic cases; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; even lung cancer,” says Anbu Suresh, medical superintendent at the Scudder Memorial Hospital at Ranipet. “We also see persons with allergic reactions to skin and eyes. These are mainly due to air pollution and water pollution.” Of about 100 in-patients at the hospital, at least 30 to 40 of them were admitted for respiratory illnesses, he says.


Shutting shop

When it was established, TCCL functioned as a joint sector company. However, it operated under various private managements from 1989 before it shut down in 1995. An official of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) says it was shut down for causing pollution.

C. Gnanaprakasam, 65, who worked as a production plant operator at TCCL from its inception, recalls the time when all was well. “It began as a joint sector company promoted by TIDCO [Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation]. But later the company’s major shares were sold and it shifted to private parties. We manufactured chromium for use in leather industries. There were 500 employees, and about 100-200 casual labourers, but this number dwindled as years passed. There were about 360 employees when it shut down,” he says.

TCCL started to face issues due to poor management, Gnanaprakasam says. Untreated sludge began to accumulate on its premises, forcing the TNPCB to issue a warning. “The company shut down mainly due to polluting and mismanagement. We are yet to receive settlement from the company,” the former employee says.

Impact of chromium

There have been numerous studies on the impact of the chromium in the site. According to the CPCB, a study conducted by the Geological Survey of India in 1996 reported that hexavalent chromium contamination spread south up to Karai village, which is located 1.5 km from the factory. The TNPCB conducted studies through the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and National Geophysical Research Institute to ascertain TCCL’s impact on the environment.

A few years ago, Ligy Philip, professor, Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and her colleagues, started intensive studies on bioremediation of chromium-contaminated soil and development of mathematical models for clean-up of hexavalent chromium-contaminated aquifers using bioremediation.

“One of the key findings is that the chromium sludge at TCCL has trivalent and hexavalent chromium. Hexavalent chromium is much more toxic compared to trivalent. We found that hexavalent chromium was leaching in to groundwater and contamination had spread for nearly two kilometres from the site,” says the report.

In fact, they had undertaken research on bioremediation with funding from the CPCB and went on to develop technology in the laboratory. “Some time during 2009-2010, we demonstrated the technology at the Ranipet site on five tonnes of chromium sludge and 10 sq. m of aquifer (groundwater). We demonstrated bioremediation using bacterial strains that can reduce hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium. The latter is less toxic and paves the way for easy absorption. It will not leach from the soil. Once hexavalent chromium in groundwater gets reduced, it is easily absorbed into the soil. Thus the water gets cleared from hexavalent and trivalent chromium,” Philip says.

Though the technology was not adopted at the TCCL site, it went on to find takers in three electro-plating industries, based in Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and North Chennai, that use chromium for electroplating during the manufacturing of automobile spare parts.

“It is in a pathetic condition,” says L. Elango, professor in the Department of Geology, Anna University, of the chromium site at Ranipet. A recent visit to the site provided him an opportunity to take a closer look at the damage done by the chromium sludge. “Chromium a highly toxic metal. Even the outer portion of the compound wall at the factory has become discoloured over the years. One can only imagine its effect on groundwater,” he says.

Elango points out that during rains, leaching from the site would flow through the drains and enter the Palar river, thereby contaminating it. The Palar river is the drinking water source not only for parts of Vellore such as Vaniyambadi, but also for parts of Chennai such as Tambaram. “However, the chromium concentration in the water gets diluted following the rains and by the time it reaches Chennai,” he says.

While remediation in itself is a “tedious process”, he acknowledges the importance of early measures that could have prevented this scale of damage. “One of the simplest ways could have been excavation. We could have at least isolated the chromium dumped here and covered it with tarpaulin sheet. We could have bundled it using polythene bags. This could have stopped leaching during the rains. But this should have been done at least 10 years ago,” he says.

However, remediation of chromium-contaminated groundwater is difficult, and mandates high technology intervention. One of the methods is to make use of “redox reaction” facilitated by bacteria that converts hexvalent chromium to trivalent chromium. This way, easily solvable hexavalent chromium can be converted to less solvable chromium, thereby reducing its movement, he says. Another way out is to pump the contaminated water and treat it by removing effluents.

Though no pro-active steps have been taken to implement a remediation at the earliest, there have been many fora where the subject has been discussed. R. Natarajan recalls how the TNPCB had organised a meeting in 1995-1996 on chromium contamination in Ranipet and Ambur when he was consultant-cum-resident engineer of TIFAC at the Department of Science and Technology. He says scientists had presented papers for bringing about solutions to chromium contamination. One such paper had looked into electrochemical reactions to convert chromium salt into chromium metal. “By that time, the groundwater had turned yellow or dark yellow, or brown due to concentration of chromium. Drinking this water could cause cancer. Converting it into trivalent chromium, which is non-toxic and non-carcinogenic, might prevent cancer, but is not the solution,” he says.

He adds: “What should be looked into is how to convert it into a useful product. It can be converted into salt that is used for leather tanning as chrome is used for softening leather or into chromium metal. A pilot plant to implement this should be set up. The question is who will put up the plant?”

A solution in sight?

If something did take off on a positive note, it was CPCB’s move to engage a private consultancy to prepare a Detailed Project Report (DPR) under the NCEF project. A private consultancy, ERM India Private Limited, was selected to prepare a DPR and provide consultancy services for remediation of eight identified contaminated sites.

“The consultancy has been studying the Ranipet chromium dump site for two years now. They have completed the field study and are in the process of finalising the DPR. Based on the results of the field study, they are drawing remedial options. We are expecting them to submit the DPR by the end of March this year,” an official of the CPCB says.

Once the DPR is submitted, the TNPCB and other stakeholders will be called in to finalise the remedial option depending on its feasibility and suitability, the official says. The CPCB would also call for global tenders to implement the selected remedial option.

While the technical procedures are under way, what matters for the villagers is better living conditions. “If these industries did not come up, we would still be drinking water from Puliyankannu Eri. Life would have been different. But the damage has been done,” says Valliamma. All she can do now is hope that there is a solution after all.

“At least, the future generation should live in a less polluted environment in which they can easily access clean drinking water and breathe clean air,” she dreams.

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