Testing times for cola firms

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

Coca-Cola, already facing criticism for over-exploiting groundwater in and around its plant in Kerala's Palakkad district, comes under fire again for distributing toxic sludge as a `fertilizer' to people living in the locality.

in Thiruvananthapuram

SOFT drink behemoth Coca-Cola has unlikely new enemies in Kerala: cadmium and lead, toxic elements that cause serious health effects in human beings.

Coca-Cola had found itself the focus of unsolicited attention after a BBC Radio 4 inquiry pronounced it guilty not only of hogging groundwater reserves from around its factory at the remote Plachimada village in Palakkad district, but also of polluting nearby villages through the "free" distribution of the sludge from the factory, which unsuspecting local farmers believed was "fertilizer" (Frontline, June 20).

Samples of the sludge collected at random by John Waite, the presenter of BBC Radio 4's programme "Face the Facts", from around the factory were analysed at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. A subsequent radio report said the samples contained dangerous levels of cadmium, known to cause cancer, renal failure, hormonal problems and lung damage; and other toxins, including lead, which could have debilitating effects on pregnant women and children. It also said the contamination had spread to the water in the region and was well above the World Health Organisation's (WHO) permissible levels.

Coca-Cola's India representatives, who for over a year have been dismissive of the protests against the way its unit was quenching its thirst in Palakkad, flew down to Thiruvananthapuram to deny the allegations. They said that poor rainfall was the villain, not their company, and that there was no evidence that Coca-Cola was over-exploiting groundwater or that it was responsible for the depletion of groundwater levels in the area around Plachimada. They reiterated that the Plachimada plant was certified as conforming to ISO 14001, the highest environmental management standard. They distributed copies of "stringent, quarterly tests" done by "independent and accredited laboratories" which showed "no presence of heavy metals or toxicity". D.S. Mathur, vice-president, Technical Operations, Coca-Cola, said: "The sludge is harmless and was provided only on request to farmers to use as a soil conditioner. We use it ourselves in our factory garden. We have not tried to make the local people believe that it is a fertilizer."

Greenpeace, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), subsequently released detailed test results from Exeter. It showed that the waste material sample collected from a plot near the Coca-Cola unit contained cadmium (100 mg/kg dry weight) and lead (1100 mg/kg), in proportions well above the permissible (Indian) limits of 50 mg/kg and 500 mg/kg respectively. The water sample collected from a well near a farm where waste from the Coca-Cola plant was dumped contained 10 micrograms/litre of cadmium and 65.7 micrograms/litre of lead (the permissible limits prescribed by the WHO being 3 micrograms/litre and 10 micrograms/litre respectively).

Goaded into action, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), which failed to detect any toxins in a sample it tested in January 2003, also announced that the sludge it analysed from samples collected from the factory premises on July 29, did contain a dangerously high level of cadmium (201.8 mg/kg dry weight), though the concentration of lead was found to be within the permissible limit (319.0 mg/kg). In the tested sample of the effluents too the concentration of the two heavy metals was within limits. BBC Radio 4 did not test the effluents. The Board did not announce any result for water samples from the region.

KSPCB Chairman Paul Thachil said: "There can be wide variations in results from such samples. But the results are indicative of a high concentration of heavy metals and the sludge may have to be classified as a hazardous waste. The Board has therefore instructed the company not to let the sludge out of the factory premises, not to let anyone use it as manure, even within the factory premises."

However, the day after the Board's findings were announced, Coca-Cola released "reassurance advertisements" in major newspapers claiming that a section of the press was indulging in a "misinformation campaign" about its Plachimada plant. The advertisement claimed that the latest tests of "a sample of bio-solid from the Palakkad plant" conducted by a Hyderabad-based nationally accredited agency on August 5 showed the presence of cadmium and lead "well below permissible limits". Significantly, the samples, which the company had earlier sent for quarterly analysis to other accredited agencies, too had showed similar `safe' results. For example, one such test conducted by the company in June through a Kochi-based laboratory showed no cadmium or lead in the sludge sample provided by Coca-Cola itself.

Asked whether the company was questioning the KSPCB's findings and directives, Nantoo Banerjee, director, public affairs and communications, Coca-Cola, told Frontline: "We are not questioning or confirming anything. We are very concerned about the results [announced by the Board]. We have stopped supplying the sludge to the local people and are following the directions of the Board. The PCB has announced that they are conducting a detailed inquiry. Until those results are announced, we are not confirming or denying anything."

In the wake of the KSPCB finding, Greenpeace has demanded that the State government direct Coca-Cola to collect all the hazardous waste it distributed in several panchayats and store it with proper precautions. Ananthapadmanabhan, executive director, Greenpeace India, said: "From what has been reported in the newspapers, the PCB report confirms the findings of the BBC investigation. Two independent assessments, one of which is by the regulatory agency KSPCB, clearly show that the material is toxic. There should be no room for further doubts in the matter."

COCA-COLA, so far thought of in Kerala only as a wayward giant drawing a community's groundwater supply to satiate its thirst for international profits, has suddenly acquired the profile of a demon spewing toxins. But the reactions of local groups (some of which have been protesting at the gates of the factory for the past nearly 450 days), government agencies and NGOs seemed confused, at least initially. The test results had raised more questions and problems than they had helped solve. The people's grouse swung between the problems of artificial water scarcity and Coca-Cola-made toxicity. Initial protests were therefore more subdued than expected.

According to Thachil, the demand for the closure of the Plachimada unit on the grounds that it produced toxic sludge "reflects an ignorance of the pollution control laws in the country". He said: "Toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead are not expected in the waste produced by soft drink industries. In fact, pollution control boards are not required to analyse the sludge from such industries. We give our consent based on the company satisfying provisions under the Air Act and the Water Act. We are required to check whether the pH value, concentration of suspended solids, oil and grease, and the BOD [biological oxygen demand] in the waste are within permissible limits. Forty-four processes are listed in the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, which require authorisation from the PCBs for storage, utilisation and disposal of solid wastes. Soft drink manufacturing is not among them. It is a mystery how cadmium is present in the sludge from the Coke factory. If our tests confirm our initial findings, we may have to insist that Coca-Cola follow the rules for secure handling of the hazardous waste produced at the plant."

Ananthapadmanabhan said that Coca-Cola had distributed the hazardous material for years now and had even tried to pass it off as a `humanitarian gesture'. "This is a corporate crime and the company must pay for it. It is not just a matter of handling the hazardous material appropriately now, but also a matter of getting to the root of the problem. The impact of the application of this hazardous waste to the soil needs to be comprehensively assessed and remediated to global standards and the community compensated by the company," he said.

The crucial mystery was the source of such high concentrations of cadmium and lead in the sludge. Was it the production or effluent treatment process in the factory? Or was the water drawn from deep borewells itself contaminated?

Thachil said the PCB's priority would be to identify the source of the "contamination". He said: "It could be the result of some process change that the company had introduced in the recent months. Or that of a change in the raw materials used, including sugar, citric acid and mango pulp, which is brought in from other States. That could be the reason why samples tested by the PCB in January and in July gave entirely different results. Only a detailed inquiry will reveal the culprit."

Significantly, environmental protection agencies worldwide have cautioned against the danger of toxic elements (such as cadmium, lead, zinc and arsenic) being released into the groundwater as a result of intense water uptake using borewells and consequent geological processes as the groundwater table shrinks drastically, exposing metallic compounds to new chemical processes. For example, hundreds of tubewells in rural West Bengal and Bangladesh have been identified with high arsenic concentrations as a result of geochemical changes caused by intense water utilisation. The arsenic contamination in the lower Gangetic delta region is today a major problem, causing serious health hazards, some leading to painful death.

Heavy utilisation of groundwater and the consequent lowering of the water table may therefore lead to an increase in the quantity of naturally occurring heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in the groundwater. Moreover, according to the Swedish Environment Protection Agency, for example, the solubility of cadmium and lead increases significantly with a decline in pH values. It means that acidification may also cause an increase in the levels of toxic metals in groundwater.

Pradeep Kumar, a member of the KSPCB team that collected the samples from the plant, said: "The Coke factory is located on a 16-hectare area, which until recently was a well-irrigated paddy field, with rice, vegetables and banana being cultivated on a large scale. In many areas of the world, the use of cadmium-contaminated phosphate fertilizers has been found to cause an increased presence of toxic metals in land used for agriculture."

Strangely, finding the answers to such doubts eventually would only mean more problems for Coca-Cola, the local community and the State government. If heavy metal contamination is the result of the production/treatment process at the plant, or the changes implemented in them, the BBC-Greenpeace results raise significant questions about the extent of damage the distribution of the sludge has caused in the region. Thachil said the KSPCB could only go by its own report of January 2003, which had found the sludge to be free of such toxic elements then and "believe" that the contamination was a recent phenomenon.

On the other hand, if the contamination is in the raw materials used, including water, the fundamental constituent, that would open a Pandora's box. "A disturbing possibility we are now questioned about is that of the products from the soft drink unit themselves getting contaminated. But the fact that cadmium is not present in the effluent tested by us is significant. If it is not in the effluent, it is unlikely to be in the product. The Coke unit has an efficient effluent treatment plant, which is perhaps the reason why heavy metals are so well precipitated and dumped in such high concentrations in the sludge," Thachil told Frontline. However, he said that the KSPCB did not have the legal mandate to test soft drinks. "It is the job of the Health Department. But as a matter of abundant precaution, our scientists have collected samples of products from the Plachimada unit and they too would be tested in the Board's laboratory at Kochi."

The most disturbing finding of the BBC Radio 4 inquiry is that the contamination has spread to the water in the region, as indicated by the test results of the water sample from a nearby well. It poses the danger of the contaminants finding their way into the food chain too. At the time of writing, no State agency had initiated an inquiry into this aspect. If the groundwater in the region is found to contain high levels of toxic heavy metals, the probable causes are more worrying. Is it a case of the water being contaminated by the sludge dumped by the Coca-Cola unit? Or, is it the result of suction of huge quantities of water by the company (among many other industrial units and individual households in the region) and the consequent geochemical processes?

COCA-COLA'S problems may soon affect its rival Pepsi, which has a bottling plant in the neighbouring Pudusseri panchayat. Panchayat president K.G. Jayanthi said that ever since the establishment of the Pepsi unit in the WISE Park industrial area, local people had been experiencing water scarcity, just as in the area around the Coca-Cola unit. Jayanthi said: "The quality of water too has deteriorated. Even at the height of the monsoon season, we are experiencing water scarcity. The Pepsi company had initially laid a 2-km-long pipeline to dump its coffee-coloured waste in a stream. When the effluents started affecting the banana crop in a farm adjoining the stream, local protests forced the company to stop the practice. Effluents are now confined within the company's land, within the industrial area. We have no information about where the company dumps the sludge."

Thachil said the KSPCB would initiate steps to analyse samples from the Pepsi unit too in the wake of the discovery of toxic contamination in samples in the case of Coca-Cola. Pepsi officials were not immediately available for comments. Greenpeace representatives said they did not have enough information to comment on the waste products from the Pepsi plant or about the need for a similar inquiry there. Asked whether there should be an inquiry into the products from the units of both the multinational corporations, Ananthapadmanabhan said: "This is a much larger question. Without in any way diminishing the outrage at Coke and Pepsi's double standards, we must realise that the issue goes much beyond these beverages. The recent Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study exposes the perilous state of our environment. We have poisoned the groundwater with indiscriminate pesticide use. Our food is poisoned too. There is no way to safe water, other than a ban on pesticides, to begin with at least, those banned elsewhere in the world."

Coca-Cola had no comments to offer on why toxic heavy metals were found in the sludge and water samples taken from the vicinity of its Plachimada unit. Nantoo Banerjee refused to say whether the company had implemented changes recently in the production/treatment process or in the raw materials used. He refused to comment on the possibility of groundwater depletion being the cause of the heavy metal toxicity.

Both Perumatti and Pudusseri panchayats, where the Coke and Pepsi plants respectively are situated, had earlier served notice on the two soft drink units for closure, on the grounds that they were over-exploiting scarce groundwater resources. Coca-Cola had approached the High Court against the panchayat's order. The court, in turn, asked the State government to take a decision on the issue, as under the Panchayati Raj Act such appeals were to be heard by an Appellate Authority, which the government is yet to establish. P. Kamal Kutty, Secretary, Local Self Government (Rural), said the government was yet to take a final decision (at the time of writing this report). The government was also "yet to take up" Pepsi's appeal against the Pudusseri panchayat's decision.

The controversy could not have come at a worse time for Coca-Cola, already facing charges, along with other soft drink manufacturers, relating to the discovery of pesticide residues in their products. The inquiry by the KSPCB, at a time when the Kerala government is aggressively courting new industries, is viewed with a tinge of scepticism. After all, government agencies had continued to provide a clean chit to the Coca-Cola unit even as it generously distributed its toxic sludge in its environs.

Public conscience in Kerala is only just waking up to the ramifications of the presence of heavy metal toxicity in Plachimada. The multinational with its trademark red-and-white logo may be forced to go `green' very soon and effect damage control measures, in order to appease international outrage. But, as with most environmental follies, they may just be too late.

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