CHENNAI: With Hindustan Unilever and the workers of its erstwhile thermometer factory in Kodaikanal finally reaching an agreement, the focus has now shifted to the other major concern – cleaning up mercury from the factory site.
Going by the draft guidance document for assessment and remediation of contaminated sites in India prepared by the Union Environment Ministry under World Bank-aided National Programme for Rehabilitation of Polluted Sites (NPRPS), the proposed screening levels of mercury for protection of environment and human health is 6.6 mg per kg of soil.
“The clean-up shouldn’t be a mere eyewash. The HUL and its consultants maintain that 20 mg/kg was good enough and people living thereafter will have no adverse health effects, but the global standards is at least 25 times less,” said Navroz Mody, a member of the Local Area Monitoring Committee and a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace who brought to light the company disposing of mercury-loaded scrap in 2001.
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Compared to the continuing danger that mercury in the soil poses to the ecosystem and the people, the settlement that was announced on Wednesday was a ‘minor victory’, Mody said. The people of Kodaikanal would not be safe until the place is made mercury-free, he added.
Dilip B Boralkar, former member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, said “Before taking a call on clean-up standard, the TNPCB should consider possible migration and bio-magnification of mercury in the organic form which is the cause of acute and chronic neurotoxicity when it gets into the food chain of the ecosystem. Therefore, the standards of clean-up ought to be stringent.”
Echoing his view, retired professor and chemical engineer T Swaminathan, who was requested by TNPCB to give an expert opinion, also emphasised a stringent clean-up standard. Many studies have shown that mercury has leaked out the factory site and entered the environment downstream. “The ‘polluter pays’ principle has to be applied against HUL,” he said.
The Chennai-based writer and activist Nityanand Jayaraman accused the TNPCB of trying to shield the company, noting that it refused to insist on an ecological risk assessment despite repeated demands. If the draft national standards was used as reference, the proposed residential standard of 20 mg/kg will not even protect residents, leave alone ecology, he added.
The contaminated factory site is surrounded by the Pambar Shola, which is part of the forest catchment for the River Vaigai, and Bombay Shola, the catchment for the Kodaikanal Lake.
An October 2015 study by Unilever’s consultant NEERI found high levels of mercury in the sediment taken from a stream in Pambar Shola indicating that the factory was actively discharging mercury into the environment.
When contacted, a top TNPCB official hinted there couldn’t be a quicker decision. “The board will review the matter and take a call post assembly election,” the official said.
Meanwhile, a statement from Unilever on Wednesday said, “HUL has submitted the Detailed Project Report to Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in August 2015 [on soil remediation] and is awaiting consent.”