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Kodaikanal: Secrecy and paid science is making public pay

Almost 14 years after it was shut, Unilever’s factory continues to leak mercury into the surrounding forests and lakes.

analysis Updated: Sep 01, 2015 01:16 IST

In 1998, Union Carbide handed over the Bhopal factory site to the Madhya Pradesh government claiming to have cleaned up the contamination. Till date, the site remains horribly contaminated. Residents and activists are fighting to get an obstinate government to use science, transparency and polluter pays as the principles for remediating the site.

Less than a month ago, a rap video went viral on the Internet and spotlighted a 14-year old Bhopal-like legacy in Kodaikanal, a Tamil Nadu hill town. In 2001, Unilever’s mercury thermometer factory there was shut down for environmental violations.

In 18 years of operation, the company discharged more than 1.3 tonnes of mercury into an ecologically sensitive watershed forest. The factory site is seriously contaminated. Some hotspots have between 5,000 and 10,000 times more mercury than naturally occurring background levels.

Over the last 14 years, little was done to repair the environment. The site continues to leak mercury into surrounding forests and Kodaikanal’s lakes. Even one gram of this brain- and kidney-damaging metal added annually to a 20 acre lake is enough to contaminate the water body.

Residents want a clean-up of the Kodaikanal factory site. But Unilever is pushing a clean-up standard that will leave behind more than a third of the contamination in the remediated soil.

In the case of Kodaikanal, efforts were made by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to evolve such a mechanism. But that was abruptly aborted in 2005.

Till 2005, the TNPCB’s chairperson Sheela Rani Chunkath set about building a remediation protocol by the book. She convened a committee to supervise remediation efforts.

In 2003, the committee oversaw the export to the US of 289 tonnes of mercury waste — a commendable feat considering that toxic wastes usually move in the opposite direction.

But Chunkath was transferred in 2005, and the committee never convened after its members insisted on a standard more stringent than what Unilever proposed. Unilever’s proposal for a residential standard of 10 mg/kg of mercury in soil was 10 times laxer than the residential value in the UK where Unilever is headquarted. Anyhow, a residential standard would not protect the sensitive watershed ecosystem surrounding the site.

With the committee out of the way, Unilever pushed through a proposal to further dilute standards from 10 to 20 mg/kg. Even standards for future industrial usage are more stringent. In New York, a former mercury refining site is being cleaned to 5.7 mg/kg for future industrial use. Egypt cleaned up a site to 10 mg/kg.

Unilever consultant NEERI’s argument for dilution is blunt: ‘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.’

To give the exercise a semblance of science, the TNPCB convened a committee of pliant scientific experts who endorsed the diluted standards without question.

Where public participation, good science and polluter pays ought to be the legs on which any remediation policy stands, the TNPCB had opted for secrecy, paid science and ‘public pays’ as its guiding principles.

The ministry of environment and forests is missing in action. Good science requires more than just scientists. Science is sound only when scientists and their works are subject to public scrutiny. Ditto with public institutions. Transparency and public oversight can provide the backbone that institutions like the TNPCB desperately need to keep themselves from caving in to pressure.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. The views expressed are personal)

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First Published: Aug 31, 2015 23:15 IST