CUDDALORE: A retired army havildar, P Senthamaraikannan of Echangadu village in Cuddalore likes to keep himself busy with small experiments around the house to confirm what he already knows. On some nights, he leaves a wet white cloth hanging outside of his home.“On the first night, you will see a layer of black dust. On the third, it will be difficult to tell what colour the cloth is because of the coal-like formation,” Senthamaraikannan said.
The people living around the SIPCOT areas in Cuddalore are used to this dust. At least 25 industrial units function out of SIPCOT allegedly causing pollution in Pachchyankuppam, Kudikadu, Sedapalayam and Semmankuppam panchayats. Residents are used to the smells — ‘pesticides’, ‘rotten cabbages’, ‘public toilets’, ‘sour fruits’, as they describe them, according to the direction of the wind.
The smells, said residents, are especially strong between 12 am and 2 am. “I remember, around three years back, I had gone out of town and reached back home late at night. When I sat down to eat, the smell was so strong that I vomited,” he said. “We’ve confronted many of these industries time and again; they keep passing the buck,” he added.
While villagers here know that the smells and discharge are coming from SIPCOT, they have been unable to attribute specific effects to specific industries. There has been no cumulative impact assessment carried out in the SIPCOT area, which can indicate the condition of the land and the possible threat by the industries functioning in the area, claim SACEM (SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring) in Cuddalore.
But both the candidates of the AIADMK and DMK alliances in Cuddalore did talk about pollution caused by SIPCOT industries. While R Govindasamy of PMK, fielded by the AIADMK alliance, has said he would keep a track of pollution in the area and possible health issues, TRVS Ramesh, the DMK candidate, said he will open all the closed industries if they meet the parameters set by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).
Groundwater is not scarce in the region. But potable a decade ago, it has become pungent and unfit for drinking now. For the 700 people in the region, a water tanker a day is supplied by SIPCOT and each family receives a little less than 15 litres of water that they can only use for drinking purposes, said residents. “If anyone from neighbouring villages asks for water, people hesitate to give. Their attitude is common among locals in SIPCOT,” said Kala P, a resident of Echangadu in Kudikadu Panchayat.
In SIPCOT, the water is unfit for drinking because it is contaminated by saline water intrusion, heavy metals, and chemicals mixing with the groundwater. A report titled ‘Gas Trouble 2’ released by SACEM had found that the air around the region consisted of 12 chemicals, including hydrogen sulphide, methylene chloride, trichloroethene, and bromomethane. Out of these, all 12 affect the eyes, 10 affect the respiratory system, 10 target the central nervous system and five target the liver and kidneys. The report concluded that at least seven out of the 12 chemicals violate one or more US regulations.
Lives lost to Cancer
In Senthamaraikannan’s house, cancer is no stranger. His wife, father and uncle have been lost to the disease, he said. However, his suspicion that the pollution in the region could be a cause for the disease cannot be confirmed due to the lack of a Government-sponsored study on health hazards in the area.
In 2011, it was widely reported that over 120 people of Kudikadu, Eechangadu, and Nochikadu were hospitalised following a bromine gas leak in the area.
They allegedly reported symptoms like skin and eye irritation, dizziness and vomiting. A moratorium was imposed in Cuddalore in 2011 which was later revoked after the industries submitted a joint action plan. However, an interim assessment at 2013 later revealed that many of the proposals made as part of the joint action plan were not implemented, said T Arul Selvam of SACEM. “In 2013, many of the plants had taken up the expansion of their capacities,” said Arul. Further, the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) score in 2011 and 2013 stated that the Cuddalore SIPCOT region’s air, water and land were critically polluted.
Control systems installed
When contacted, the district environmental engineer said of the 25 industries in operation, some reused treated effluents, while others sent it to a common marine disposal system within the SIPCOT area. “Treated effluents are connected to the sump and pumped into the sea through a pipeline. This marine disposal system is running with Government approval. All the outlets are continuously monitored and results are sent to the water quality watch in Guindy (Chennai) which monitors various parameters,” the official said.
Air pollution control systems have been installed in all industries and are being monitored on a regular basis, he added. “From 1986 when Water & Air Acts were passed and Pollution Control Boards were formed, environmental guidelines have been issued. The Cuddalore SIPCOT Industrial Estate was formed to set up chemical industries. The guidelines are followed by industries at a great expense,” said K Indra Kumar, secretary of Cuddalore SIPCOT industries association.
“The quality of life of local residents has improved greatly since SIPCOT came into being. Local people have gained employment and their standard of living has improved considerably. Almost all the Industries have received ISO 9000/14000 certification and therefore have tighter control on pollution,” he said, adding that sometimes pipelines carrying treated water could break or be damaged by miscreants causing effluents to leak. In both cases, the industries mount repair work on a war footing, he said.
Study reveals high levels of contamination
In August 2007, a study conducted by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute for the TNPCB had concluded that the interactions with the local populace showed that the area warranted strict Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emission control. “The VOCs monitored have shown values which exceed the acceptable levels,” the study said, putting forth short term and long term recommendations for the 14 industries that were functioning at that time