DINDIGUL:Facing the brunt of a sustained campaign over the alleged dumping of mercury at its former thermometer manufacturing unit in Kodaikanal, Anglo-Dutch behemoth Unilever has appointed a private agency to test soil at the plant premises.
Sources said a team has been collecting soil samples from different parts of the premises for the past five days, but the local monitoring committee or the ex-employees association have no information about the plan or processes. “The local monitoring committee is watching the activities of the team closely because it is essential that the clean-up meets basic standards,” Mahendra Babu, president of the ex-employees association, told Express.
Meanwhile, with the company singed by the intensity of the campaign seeking a complete clean-up of the plant site, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said he was awaiting clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) for the action plan it had submitted. “As soon as this is approved, we will start work. We hope this will be very soon,” Polman noted in a letter, replying to academic and noted environmental activist professor Eurig Scandrett of the Queen Margaret University, the UK, who wrote to the company in his capacity as the chair of Friends of the Earth, Scotland.
On the contentious issue of the standard of cleaning (Unilever is accused of adopting very low standards compared to Western countries during its previous clean-up efforts), Polman said it was not the company that fixed the standard. “...the standard is set by TNPCB not Unilever, and there is no single standard either in India or any other country, but we expect them to set it at a high standard,” he said.
Polman claimed that it was due to local NGOs that the company was unable to make any progress in its efforts. “We regret how long this has dragged on and remain determined to do our part to achieve a solution to both the financial settlement and site clean-up as swiftly as possible, but much of the pace is dictated by others,” he added.
The controversial plant was set up in 1983 by Chesebrough-Ponds, with machinery from the United States where increased awareness about mercury poisoning led to tighter regulation. The company was bought over by Unilever in 1986. It was in 2001 that the Palani Hills Conservation Council and environment Greenpeace exposed the company’s attempt to sell glass contaminated with mercury to a local scrap dealer, following which the TNPCB directed the factory to shut down. Two years later, around 300 tonnes of contaminated waste was extracted from the town, and over 280 tonnes of partially-treated mercury sludge was sent back to the US.
Experts say mercury is the third most toxic element after arsenic and lead. Activists point out that while the standard for mercury clean-up is 1mg/kg of soil in the UK and 10 mg/kg in the Netherlands - native to the entities that formed to become the present Unilever - the standard set at Kodai was 25mg/kg.