Mercury's victims

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

Environmental and activist groups and local residents continue their fight seeking reparations for the damage Hindustan Lever Limited's thermometer plant in Kodaikanal has allegedly caused to its employees' health and the environment through mercury poisoning.

AS the mist clears and the sun's rays penetrate the forests of Kodaikanal, the over 2,000-metre-high hill station in the Palni Hills on the eastern spur of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, its verdant heights display a serene radiance. But this benign beauty may well hide the malignancy of the pollution of the environment by mercury waste from Hindustan Lever Limited's thermometer factory.

HLL closed the factory in May 2001 after the local people, led by environmental groups, brought to the notice of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) the fact that the company had dumped 7.4 tonnes of mercury-contaminated glass waste at its scrapyard, in the slopes in Munjikal, below the rear wall of the factory. (One gram of mercury let into a 10-hectare lake for a few years can poison it completely.) The scrap yard is located in a crowded area of the town. Subsequently, the TNPCB issued notice to the company to refrain from carrying out any activity at the plant site. It also cut water and power supply to the factory.

Two years later, environmental groups, women's organisations, consumer forums, academics, and the people of the town are still fighting the company, seeking reparations for the damage the plant has caused the town's environment and compensation to workers who claim to be affected by the continued exposure to mercury vapour during the18 years of its operations. A neurotoxin, mercury affects the nervous system and high exposure to its vapour can be fatal.

Although HLL closed the unit (the parent company Unilever claims that the decision was made before the community raised its concern, as "part of the global strategy to exit non-core product activities") and, in May 2003, shipped, as directed by the TNPCB, to the United States 1,416 drums containing 290 tonnes of mercury waste generated by the factory in 18 years, the problem appears to be far from over.

A recent report by the Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT) - prepared after a two-day public hearing of the affected people, examination of evidence provided by HLL and environmental groups, and the holding of an independent survey of the area around the plant site - concluded that the HLL unit had shown "scant regard for the dangers involved in the dispersal of mercury from this site", and "the manner in which information is presented, the contradictions in the statements and subsequent reworking of mercury balance (waste) indicate a concerted attempt to misrepresent with incorrect declarations the true facts in this matter".

The IPT expert panel - comprising Justice S.N. Bhargava, Chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission; Dr. Amit Nair, Director of Development Alliance, New Delhi; Professor Ramakrishnan, School of Management Studies, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore; and Dr. Rakesh Kumar Singh, Senior Programme Officer, Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi - has suggested an independent assessment by the TNPCB of the spread of mercury waste in the town and its impact on the health of the workers and on the environment.

What are the demands of the environmental groups and the people of Kodaikanal? Environmentalists in the U.S. and India want the 290 tonnes of mercury waste that has reached the U.S. to be stored permanently in a secure site and not recycled and sent back to developing countries (mercury use is banned in the U.S. and Europe). The Palni Hill Conservation Council (PHCC), Greenpeace, the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal (UCCK - an umbrella organisation of 25 local groups), and the workers of HLL want the company to clean up the environmental damage and compensate the workers.

Environmentalists also allege that the unit had provided false information to the TNPCB on the mercury used, the waste generated by the plant, the conditions of the workers' health and the precautions taken to protect the health of its workers.

In 1983, Ponds India Limited purchased a second-hand thermometer plant owned by Cheseborough Ponds Inc. in Watertown, New York, and relocated it in Kodaikanal. The company came into the possession of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever in 1997, when Ponds India merged with Unilever's subsidiary HLL. As a 100 per cent export-oriented unit, the factory enjoyed a number of government concessions. The "fully export-dedicated" plant imported mercury (about five tonnes a year) from Bethlehem Apparatus, Pennsylvania, U.S., made thermometers and exported them to the U.S. for re-export to other countries. At its peak, the factory produced 500,000 pieces of thermometers a year; about 165 million pieces were exported between 1984 and 2001.

ACCORDING to the local people, the dumping of mercury-laden waste polluted the main drinking water source of the town, and the Kodai lake.

They allege that the waste was also dumped into the rivers and in the biodiversity-rich Pambar Shola, which was recently designated a sanctuary by the Tamil Nadu government. The Pambar stream runs through the forest below the factory and flows down to the Kumbhakarai waterfalls, and then merges into the canal flowing from the Vaigai dam. The slopes where HLL dumped waste are part of the Pambar Shola watershed. It is also said that the unit sold mercury-laden waste to an unsuspecting local scrap dealer (Frontline, March 30, 2001).

According to environmentalists, the mercury level inside the factory was about 600-times the permissible level (the permissible limit of mercury in soil is 0.01mg/kg). Over 100 former workers complained about serious health problems typical of mercury poisoning. These relate to kidneys, the nervous system and blood (in which mercury accumulates).

Former workers say that the factory discontinued safety measures after the second year of operation. An employee, who had worked in the factory for 16 years and now suffers from a constant headache and bleeding nose among other health problems, says: "The only thing we were told was to wash our hands before we ate."

In May 2001, heeding the demands of the community to obtain information on the operations in the factory (material balance of mercury and soil contamination around the site), the TNPCB formed a Hazardous Waste Monitoring Committee (HWMC) with representatives from the industry and non-governmental organisations. The committee, expressing concern over the variations in the mercury material balance (the difference between the total amount of mercury brought into the factory and the quantity used in production) submitted by the company, observed that the mercury released into the environment "appears to be substantially higher than permissible levels". It also said that the health records of the employees need to be verified independently by experts.

A preliminary health survey by Dr. Mohan Isaac, Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bangalore, done on behalf of the Bangalore-based Community Health Cell, found in the former workers of the unit symptoms consistent with mercury exposure and recommended a thorough investigation of the potential health hazard of mercury vapour inhalation by the workers.

HLL told the committee that it was willing to "provide records pertaining to ex-workers who ask for them in writing, including to families of workers who had died". It claimed that no one had sought the records. This is denied by some former workers who say that they had approached HLL for their medical records but were denied information. HLL is also said to have extracted signatures from its employees, absolving the company of any liability for occupational illness.

However, as HLL did not provide all the information sought by the TNPCB panel on soil contamination, health of the workers or material balance, the PHCC, Greenpeace and other local groups approached the IPT seeking measures to investigate the environmental pollution aspect and assess the effluent disposal and safety measures followed by the HLL unit.

Workers who spoke at the public hearing said that they were exposed to mercury vapour when ovens meant to heat thermometers were opened and closed (which happened frequently). They also said that mercury was handled casually inside the factory and that it routinely spilled on the shop floor.

The families of 10 dead employees testified that the deaths had been owing to mercury pollution. They have urged the company to come clean by releasing the health records of all the ex-employees, including those who died.

The local groups also alleged that in May 2001, HLL submitted figures to the TNPCB that concealed 10 tonnes of mercury emission - the figure it provided was 20 times less than the actual emission, they said - and that mercury levels in the soil outside the factory were more than 25 times the lowest readings submitted by the company, figures much higher than the permissible limit. This, according to Greenpeace, is possibly the result of mercury vapour dispersed by fans on the shop floor.

Protesting against the harm caused to the workers and the dump-and-run policy of the company, the local people staged hunger strikes and took out rallies and processions. They blamed HLL for inflicting long-term suffering on the people and the environment, withholding information from the workers and offering the TNPCB distorted facts.

After initially denying that it had dumped any mercury waste, HLL later admitted that it had "inadvertently removed from the factory" mercury-bearing glass waste to the scrap dealer and dumped some of it in its scrap yard (on its website the company continues to misrepresent the scale of the damage, claiming 5.3 tonnes were spilled, while independent verification put it at 7.4 tonnes). In a press release issued in June 2002, Unilever denied all other allegations levelled against its subsidiary. It said: "We categorically rebut and deny all allegations." It maintained that "we are not liable for any damage".

While the Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury considers HLL's admission in the press release that some "mercury-laden waste has gone out of the factory inadvertently" to be significant, it is concerned that several batches of such waste may be spread over various parts of the State. It has called for an investigation by the TNPCB.

IN early 2002, to support its contention that it did not cause any significant harm to the community, Unilever commissioned the Dutch environment and engineering consultants URS Dames and Moore (now URS) to assess the impact of the mercury waste on humans and the environment in Kodaikanal.

According to a June 2002 HLL press release, Unilever believes (based on the URS report) that "none of the people who had worked at the HLL factory or employees of the Kodaikanal scrap dealer has suffered any adverse health effects resulting from exposure to mercury arising from the factory's operations". Further, Unilever denied there had been any contamination of the water and fish at the Kodai lake, and stressed that samples of water from the Pambar river revealed no accumulation of mercury in "water, soil or vegetation".

Unilever does, however, acknowledge that "there is contamination inside the factory, and agrees to remediate 4,100 cubic metres of soil to below 10 parts per million, in accordance with the Dutch standards". While the company had promised to complete the remediation measures by the end of last year, environmentalists allege that there is no sign of any activity.

According to Unilever, after a material balance study, URS extrapolated that less than 1 per cent of the 136.5 tonnes of mercury brought into the factory would have been released into the atmosphere, primarily through vapourisation. The total discharge is estimated at 75 kg a year (1,350 kg over 18 years) which, Unilever claims, is far lower than the 140 tonnes released each year from coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

In the press release, HLL also denied that any worker had died owing to mercury pollution or that there had been any health impact on workers owing to mercury vapour exposure (it said that it had maintained medical records of each employee according to protocol). It stressed that the mercury released from the factory had had no impact on the Kodai lake and cited in support of its claim the assessment of URS. It further argued that the mercury concentration in the limited areas to the north and south of the factory site would wear off naturally over time and did not need any remediation. In conclusion, it said: "HLL, on the recommendation of URS, is willing to remediate some spots of the soil within the factory where mercury concentration is between 0.1 and 10 mg per kg."

But the local groups are questioning the validity of the company's assessment process, pointing out, for instance, that the URS studies of the Pambar river did not look at mercury accumulation in fish, the best test for mercury contamination (mercury biomagnifies up to 100,000 times in predatory fish).

On March 12, 2003, after two years of struggle by the environmental organisations, the TNPCB directed the company to send the waste material from the factory as well as that collected from the scrap yard, back to the U.S. The company collected 290 tonnes of mercury-contaminated waste material, packed it in drums, moved it to Tuticorin port in early April, and, after a month, on May 8, sent it to the U.S. by a French liner, Indamex Chesaepeake, which reached New York on May 31.

On the waste reaching the U.S., several international environmental groups, including Greenpeace, demanded that Unilever retire the mercury waste. The company turned down the demand, saying: "It is too late for considering any such demand."

While welcoming HLL's move to send the mercury-laden waste to the U.S., activist groups in Kodaikanal have asked the company to remediate the soil not only within the factory but also in all the affected areas where the contamination exceeds 0.03 mg per kg - the limit set by the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme. They also want the company to set up a comprehensive medical rehabilitation and compensation programme for its former workers affected by mercury pollution and to return the medical records of workers. Finally, they want HLL to compensate the community of Kodaikanal for the release of mercury vapour into the atmosphere.

The issues seem to have got complicated by competing claims and contradictory data presented by the environmentalists and HLL. The local people - as suggested by the IPT - demand that the TNPCB conduct an independent investigation into the mercury pollution.

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