A toxic hot spot in Kerala

Print edition : June 17, 2005

A titanium dioxide factory in Thiruvananthapuram dumps hazardous waste into the sea in spite of court orders, and the State government is helping it secure immunity from environmental laws.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

The canal carrying untreated effluents from the Travancore Titanium Products plant (in the background) at Veli in Thiruvananthapuram runs right up to the sea.-S. MAHINSHA

A PROFIT-MAKING titanium dioxide plant in Kerala, which has been dumping concentrated sulphuric acid and other pollutants into the Arabian Sea for decades, continues to defy closure orders and coerce the authorities to grant it more time to comply with environmental laws. The agency wielding the stick now is the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes.

The SCMC made its first visit to Kerala in August 2004 and, if the State Pollution Control Board (PCB) is to be believed, within months of the visit 108 of the 198 errant industries in the State started complying fully with the pollution control norms and most of the others were in the process of doing so (Frontline, October 2004). While 17 units preferred to close down, eight ignored the directions of the SCMC and the PCB, with the government-owned Travancore Titanium Products (TTP) Ltd. in Thiruvananthapuram being the most recalcitrant of them all. All the eight units have been issued closure notices, but the TTP has gained time until April 2006 by getting Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to plead with the SCMC on its behalf.

The 50-year-old TTP, one of the few profit-making public sector units in Kerala, uses the conventional sulphate route technology to recover titanium dioxide from ilmenite ore, which is abundant on the south Kerala-Tamil Nadu coast. Ilmenite and rutile are the main sources of titanium in the world, although the metal occurs in numerous other minerals too. While ilmenite contains compound oxides of titanium and iron, rutile is an impure form of titanium dioxide.

Approximately 95 per cent of the titanium consumed in the world is in the form of titanium dioxide, a strikingly white pigment used in the manufacture of paints, plastics, paper, ink, rubber and other products. Titanium dioxide is produced in two grades, anatase and rutile. The TTP is the largest producer of anatase grade titanium dioxide in India, claiming a market share of nearly 70 per cent. The public sector Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd. (KMML) in nearby Kollam district holds the largest market share for (synthetic) rutile grade titanium dioxide.

In fact, the TTP enjoyed a monopoly in the market until the KMML was set up in 1985. The rutile grade pigment produced by the KMML from ilmenite through the less-polluting chloride route technology is more expensive and preferred in exterior paints and for various other uses. The TTP's "softer" anatase grade pigment is considered ideal for interior paints, tyres, printed fabrics, electronic components, footwear and leather goods, and flooring materials like linoleum and white mosaic and for "delustering" artificial fibre in the textile industry.

The sulphate process was the first commercial-scale technology used to convert ilmenite (a mixture of titanium, ferrous iron and ferric iron) to titanium dioxide. The TTP extracts titanium in ilmenite using sulphuric acid. At present, it generates around 120 tonnes of concentrated sulphuric acid every day, along with lesser quantities of ferrous sulphate, titanyl sulphate and manganese sulphate as waste products. These are discharged into the Arabian Sea without treatment and they continue to be discharged even after the Water and Air Acts came into force in the mid-1970s.

According to the PCB, the company discharged 2,073,577,400 kg of hazardous liquid effluent into the sea during 2003-04. In this, free sulphuric acid was present at a concentration of 5,47,246 mg/kg of dry matter, well above the 50,000 mg/kg limit prescribed in the Hazardous Wastes Rules. The company has no material recovery or waste water (effluent) treatment facilities and it dumps huge quantities of toxic and polluting matter on the coast in violation of the Water Act and a 1995 order of the Water Appellate Authority that "treated" effluents should be discharged to the sea through a 750-metre submarine pipeline.

The PCB norms state that the pH value (which indicates the acidity or alkalinity level) of the wastewater should be in the range of 5.5 to 9.0. The pH of the effluent from the TTP is "always" around 1, indicating very high acidity. (Figures below seven indicate acidity and above seven alkalinity.) The company has also been flouting the PCB's direction to dispose of its untreated ilmenite (containing traces of heavy metals) at a secure landfill. Over the years, several studies tried to raise the alarm, but the TTP countered them successfully by claiming that the sea, an alkaline medium, was traditionally used to discharge the acidic effluent from titanium dioxide plants and that the waste was neutralised within minutes of entering the sea and did no harm to the environment.

However, fish and other marine species have deserted the area, and fisherfolk have lived on this coast for decades enduring the acidic discharge and pungent smell and the deep yellow-brown crust of sea. They hold agitations frequently before the factory, only to withdraw on the basis of promise of jobs in the factory.

According to the 2001-02 report of the Coastal Ocean Monitoring and Prediction System (COMAPS), which monitors the health of coastal waters at specified locations in the country, water quality parameters such as pH value (1.9), dissolved oxygen (2.86 mg/l) and Biological Oxygen Demand (0.47 mg/l) were abnormally low at the TTP effluent discharge point at Veli in coastal Thiruvananthapuram. Suspended particulate matter (20.5 mg/l) and silicate concentration (6.2 m mol/l) were also found to be the highest at this point.

The effluent discharge point of the TTP showed the lowest microbial count in both water and sediment samples, A brownish-yellow colour and a pungent smell are ever-present features at the discharge point. Dense white fumes around the atmosphere and characteristic colour change in the remains of shell fish were also noticed during the study. An earlier study, conducted by the National Institute of Oceanography, had indicated biomass depletion in a 100 sq km area of the sea surrounding the point of discharge, according to PCB officials.

"The company claims that the impact of its effluent is limited to less than 100 metres of the discharge point, after which the acidity is neutralised by the alkaline sea. Neutralisation is not the only problem; it is one of toxicity, too. The carbon dioxide absorption capacity of seawater is increased many times because of the continuous stream of pollutants entering it. The company impacts the marine environment, forcing it to act as a carbon dioxide sink," S.D. Jayaprasad, the new Member-Secretary of the State PCB, told Frontline.

The TTP has been hauled to court on several occasions but on each occasion it has enacted the ritual of pleading guilty and informing the court that it had only no-win options before it: to close down for want of pollution control facilities or implement costly pollution control packages. However, the majority of its employees as well as the public viewed with suspicion the proposals on pollution-abatement projects because of their economic impact on the company (increasingly facing competition even in the domestic market from global players) as well as the possibility of corruption, given the high costs involved.

Moreover, in industrially backward Kerala, closing down a profit-making public sector unit for its failure to implement pollution-abatement measures is a no-no proposition for the political leadership. As a result, the company carried on unhindered, making its marine dumpyard one of the most toxic spots in coastal India. However, for nearly 11 years from the late 1980s, Travancore Sulphates Ltd. (TSL), a joint-venture company working literally next door, used a part of the effluent load from the TTP to produce byproducts that could be used in neutralising effluents from other industries or in treating domestic sewage. That has been the only `pollution-abatement' measure tried by the TTP to reduce the environmental impact of its acidic effluent.

But the TSL, in which the TTP and the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) had a 46 per cent joint stake, closed down in 1991 in controversial circumstances. The TSL management alleged that the TTP deliberately forced it into economic unviability through a series of subtle measures, which the TTP never acknowledged as doing. Added to this was the TSL's own post-liberalisation woes, a sharp fall in the import duty on sulphur and higher energy costs. "It appeared then that the TTP wanted to prove that the TSL cannot work and the company would have to go for alternative technology to control pollution," said a senior government official.

According to environmental engineers, there are theoretically three possibilities of dealing with effluents from sulphate plants. The simplest solution is to neutralise the acidic effluent using an alkaline medium, such as hydrated lime. But such a process would generate mountains of sludge - about 500 tonnes a day in a plant like the TTP - the storage and disposal of which would become unmanageable.

The second option, called the acid recovery process, is to crystallise the ferrous sulphate (known as copperas) from the effluent, reconcentrate the remaining acid and re-use it in the production process. But this requires a lot of energy to evaporate water while reconcentrating the acid, and the acid so recovered would be about three and a half times more expensive than the virgin acid that the TTP produces now by burning imported sulphur. The cost of production of titanium dioxide would go up by at least Rs.15,000 a tonne as a result. This process, too, would produce large quantities of solid wastes.

The third alternative is to convert the effluent into some other non-toxic form that could be of use in other industrial applications, similar to what the TSL had done for years before it closed down. The TSL process converted the effluent into a range of inorganic sulphates that were used in the purification of other industrial effluents and domestic sewage.

STRANGELY, under the pretext of complying with the SCMC's directions, the TTP is proposing to undertake pollution control through the costliest acid recovery route (a proposition it had rejected repeatedly as economically unviable), along with substantive expansion and diversification programmes. It would have to generate the funds for this, amounting to Rs.251.6 crores, on its own, through equity and loans from financial institutions, without the support of the State government.

At the effluent discharge point at Veli.-S. MAHINSHA

Eapen Joseph, Managing Director of the TTP, told Frontline that on May 19 the State government approved a Rs.256.1-crore project proposed by the company primarily meant to tackle pollution-related problems and to address the company's expansion and diversification needs. "Along with capacity expansion, the product mix will also undergo changes, with the company taking up the production of the rutile grade titanium dioxide pigment, which commands a higher price in the market. Capacity expansion and diversification have become necessary to offset the huge additional investment required for pollution control measures and to keep the company financially viable. Expansion is also necessary because several new players, with the advantage of economy of scale, have entered the TTP's traditional market," he said.

From the pollution control perspective, however, the company that the PCB ordered to be closed for flouting pollution control norms was being allowed to expand capacity and diversify without addressing, in any way, the PCB's directions in the closure notice.

A senior PCB engineer said: "Although there is no justification for giving further extension of time until April 2006 to a company discharging poisonous, noxious and highly polluting effluents with a pH value continuously less than one, the Supreme Court committee has asked us to give conditional consent to the TTP until then, as a special case, because of the intervention of the Chief Minister on behalf of the public sector unit."

The condition is that the company will comply with all pollution control requirements by April 2006, a deadline set earlier by the Kerala High Court in a public interest petition filed in 2003. Although the Supreme Court said specifically that no lower court or authority shall take cognisance or entertain any challenge connected with the implementation of its order passed on October 14, 2003, asking all errant industrial units in the State to be shut down by May 31, 2004, the SCMC itself allowed the TTP time until April 2006. Given the TTP's track record, nobody is convinced that it will become fully compliant by then, despite an action plan proposed by the SCMC.

"Ideally, the wayward company that was ordered to be closed down for non-compliance of pollution control norms should have been asked to fulfil all conditions first before being allowed to function. In effect, what the SCMC has asked us to do is to give consent to the expansion plans of an errant company, which has refused to comply with the laws of the land for so many years," the PCB engineer said.

The second issue in the controversy is regarding the TTP's selection of the acid recovery process suggested by its consultant, MECON, a Government of India company, as the solution. In doing so, it disregarded suggestions from the Kerala High Court and the SCMC that it consider seriously the proposals made by the TSL as a less-expensive alternative. MECON is now entrusted with the review and selection of technology, detailed engineering, project management and implementation of the Rs.256.1-crore project.

In 2003, the High Court, while hearing a public interest petition and another petition filed by the TSL, asked the TTP to evaluate the TSL's cheaper option within one month and report back to it. The TTP's lawyer had reportedly informed the court then that the company would have to close down if it were to implement the costlier project proposed by its consultants.

Sreekumar K. Nair, TSL's executive director, told Frontline that to this day neither the TTP nor MECON had contacted the TSL to evaluate its proposal, even though the TTP and MECON subsequently claimed before the SCMC that they had evaluated the TSL's technology and found it not feasible. According to a PCB official, though the TSL had petitioned the court that the technology evaluation should be done by engineers from either the Indian Institute of Technology or Engineers India, the TTP appointed MECON, which rejected the TSL's proposal.

Strangely, while suggesting that the TTP should consider seriously the TSL's less-expensive option, as the High Court had done earlier, the SCMC, during its latest visit to the TTP on May 10, also said that the TTP proposal should at least be considered "as a means to reduce the volume of effluent that must be treated by the TTP". The TTP has ignored this, too.

"MECON has studied the cheaper alternative offered by [the] TSL. [The] TSL may partially solve our problem if the company starts working, but what it offers is not a complete solution. Moreover, a public sector company cannot become so completely dependent on what is for all intents and purposes a private company for managing its pollution control requirements," Eapen Joseph said.

Employees of the company are a worried lot, even though S. Somasekharan Nair, secretary of the Titanium Products Labour Union, which is affiliated to the ruling Congress, termed the Rs.256-crore project "essential for the survival of the company, even though workers may have to forgo some existing benefits for the sake of the survival of the company and there may even be an element of possible corruption in the deal."

However, according to S. Jayan, secretary of the Titanium Products General Labour Union (CITU), the proposed project can lead only to the closure of the company. He said: "The project is to be implemented in two phases, raising an equity of Rs.85.4 crores and a loan of Rs.170.7 crores. The company, which has assets worth Rs.50 crores, trying to raise Rs.85.4 crores through equity will only be opening its doors for disinvestment. The burden of repaying the huge interest and principal and meeting the recurring costs, especially on the proposed acid recovery project will surely affect the survival of this profit-making PSU. We are also sceptical about the sudden enhancement in the project cost as suggested by MECON. In November 2004, MECON had estimated a cost of Rs.227 crores for the same project. When it is being proposed finally for implementation, seemingly with the approval of the SCMC, we find a sudden enhancement of about Rs.30 crores. We have our reservations about it and are worried about its implications. TTP employees do not want the management to implement any project that would affect the survival of the unit."

The case of the TTP is now at the centre of the anti-hazardous wastes campaign the SCMC launched in Kerala with a lot of enthusiasm. Within the first few days of the State government sanctioning the new project using the good offices of the SCMC and literally bypassing the PCB, the people were alerted to the likely hidden agendas behind the stated intentions of various agencies involved in pollution control efforts. No wonder that even as they watch the TTP's proposals with much interest, in Thiruvananthapuram people seem reconciled to the idea of an ever-lasting pollution hot spot on their coconut-green coastline.

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