Of contamination and cover-ups

Thirty years after the Bhopal disaster, the recent upsurge of interest in the Kodaikanal mercury pollution case has made one thing clear. Neither the central government nor any State government has done anything towards putting in place a policy for environmental remediation of contaminated sites or rehabilitation of affected people. On the contrary, the authorities have actively colluded with the polluters to dilute environmental standards and frustrate efforts by communities to seek compensation.

Every time a factory pollutes a neighbourhood or exposes people to poisons, people have to fight a hostile system that requires victims — mostly, indigent people — to conclusively prove that they and the environment have been harmed. Arrayed against those affected by pollution stands a veritable army of scientific institutions, State and Central Pollution Control Boards, the Environment Ministry and the wealthy polluters with huge budgets to hire lawyers, and buy science and media space.

Toxic hotspots and affected people can be found across the country alongside polluting factories — be it the cancer corridor between Vapi and Bharuch in Gujarat, Jeedimetla in Andhra Pradesh, Udyogamandal near Kochi, the industrial estates in Mettur, Thoothukudi or Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, or Singrauli and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Successive governments have worked out elaborate policies to promote industrialisation, but none to address the inevitable fallout of unregulated industrial activity.

Fourteen years after the 1984 gas leak, Union Carbide in 1998 dusted off a few shelves in its Bhopal factory, moved some toxic waste from the floor to sacks and drums, and handed over the site to the State government, claiming to have cleaned it up. But the factory site remains dangerously contaminated and continues to claim lives and maim children. Now, activists are trying hard to uphold the ‘polluter pays’ principle to ask for a thorough clean-up of the site.

Lower standards

The case of Kodaikanal seems to be no different. Where public participation, good science and ‘polluter pays’ ought to be the legs on which any policy for remediation stands, in Kodaikanal, the Central and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Boards (CPCB and TNPCB) have opted for secrecy, paid science and ‘public pays’ as the principles for environmental remediation following severe mercury contamination around Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer manufacturing factory.

Emboldened by the cooperation extended by state regulators, Unilever is insisting on a lower clean-up standard. In the U.K., Unilever’s home country, the site would have to be cleaned up to 1 mg/kg to be fit for residential purposes. In India, Unilever’s proposal is 20 mg/kg, a number that is 20 times more lax than British standards, and 200 times more than naturally occurring background levels.

If the company’s numbers are to be believed, such a clean-up will leave more than a third of the mercury behind in the soil after the company hands over the ‘cleaned up’ site. But even these numbers are not credible.

After Unilever’s thermometer factory was shut down in March 2001, the company prepared a report that claimed to account for every kilogram of mercury used in 18 years of operation. The report explained that of the 125,676 kg of mercury imported, all but 559 kg could be accounted for, and that the latter figure was the loss to the environment. As per this figure, only 170 kg of mercury remained on site, mixed with soil and vegetation and subject to the proposed cleanup.

On the face of it, the mercury balance was perfect. But as ex-workers pointed out, Unilever had forgotten to include 10,810 kg of mercury purchased from Mumbai. Unfazed, Unilever’s consultant subsequently redid the report to account for the additional mercury.

Supreme Court ignored

Before environmental remediation, a detailed and independent assessment of the depth and spread of contamination is required. Despite requests from the public and directions by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) urging the TNPCB to independently assess contamination, the regulator has taken not a single soil sample in the last 14 years and Unilever’s report remains the basis for the clean-up.

A Local Area Committee formed by the TNPCB in 2004, with residents and ex-workers as members, had questioned this report as well as Unilever’s proposal to clean up the contaminated areas based on a Dutch residential standard of 10 mg mercury per kilogram of soil. They pointed out that as the site was located atop a forest, it should be cleaned up for targeted future use as a watershed and not merely as a residential area. In response, the TNPCB sidelined this ‘troublesome’ local committee. It has not been convened since 2005.

Instead of commissioning a study by itself, as directed by the SCMC, TNPCB allowed Unilever to engage the National Environment Engineering Institute (NEERI) directly to set the standards. Ironically, NEERI head and SCMC member Dr. Tapan Chakraborti, who had insisted on a clean-up standard of 2 mg/kg in May 2005, in a report submitted in 2007, backed Unilever’s case for a relaxed standard.

NEERI’s argument for diluting the standard is candid: “The benefits likely to accrue out of stricter norms are to be compared against the additional cost [to Unilever] that may be incurred while undertaking such projects.” The proposed standards were geared to protect the financial health of Unilever.

If the writ of experts such as these is allowed to prevail, the Kodaikanal site will remain a significant reservoir of mercury even after the clean-up, leaking deadly neuro and nephrotoxin into Kodaikanal’s lakes and the Pambar Shola watershed forests. These forests form the catchment area for southern Tamil Nadu’s lifeline, the river Vaigai.

Any policy for remediation of contaminated sites should be based on sound science. And science is sound only when scientists and their work are subject to public scrutiny. That is why activists and residents are calling for transparency and public participation as the only way to keep government bodies and experts from toeing the corporate line.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist who has been part of the struggles for justice in Bhopal and Kodaikanal.)

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 4:54:57 AM |

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