Chlor-alkali’s acid test

The Centre for Science and Environment’s Green Rating Project assesses the trade

Published: Sunday 28 June 2015

Chlor-alkaliÔÇÖs acid test

Caustic - Chlorine Sector - Under Pressure

Author: Sunita Narain

What would you say of an industry that takes common salt and turns it into one of the most environmentally deadly substances we know of today, namely chlorine?

imageAnd what if in its production process it uses yet another deadly substance, mercury? We are talking about India’s caustic-chlorine industry. Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) Green Rating Project has recently completed the environmental rating of this sector’s life cycle. Fascinating journey it was. Green rating, as CSE practices it, is a great teacher of detail and substance. It took us over one year to understand the sector. During this period, we took it apart from skin to bones to its entrails and then worked carefully to see what would be the best way to put it together again. Something like virtual reengineering for a green industry.

When we began the exercise, the caustic-chlorine sector sounded very dull. It had none of the environmental tragedies of the paper sector or the glamourhorror of the automobile sector — both of which we had rated earlier (see ‘Enter the green rating project’ Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 5, and ‘Setting out’ Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 13). In ignorance I asked my colleague Chandra Bhushan, who coordinates this programme, what is this industry? His stock answer was that this sector manufactures the lifeline for the modern industrial sector. Interesting. Yes. But still what is its environmental story?

I was to eat my words. As information on the sector unfolded, it became clear that this rating is the stuff that Hindi films are made of. It has romance — making modern chemicals from the salt of the seas.

imageIt has success — as early as in 1985, an oleum leak in the Delhi-based Sriram Fertilisers and the subsequent legal directions forced the entire sector to substantially clean up its safety record. Some parts of the industry are even close to the global best industry in this sector. But still, action is only when there is a push. So the industry works on safety of chlorine, but forgets about another equally dangerous chemical — hydrogen, which is highly inflammable. It improves safety in the plant, but does little to inform people living outside its factory compound on the dangers and emergency planning.

It has tragedy — mercury is used in the process. Before we began work we heard from regulators that the problem of mercury contamination from this sector “is taken care of”. But as we fished and fished some more, we found to our horror that not only is the problem not taken care of, but it is of deadly and frightening proportions. We learnt the bestkept secret was that a large proportion of the mercury that enters the plant is not accounted for. Nobody knows where it goes. What we have found on this deadly mercury trail still leaves unanswered many issues. But most of all it calls for urgent action — to set new regulations for these plants and, if nothing else works, to close down these plants as fast as possible. It is clear with the data we have on mercury that a massive human tragedy is in the making.

It has drama — it manufacturers a product like chlorine which when is used by a chemical industry to manufacture chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which we now know are responsible for damaging the earth’s ozone layer, and because of which, we have increased incidences of cancers. It is now being used in the plastic industry to manufacture polyvinylchloride or PVC as we know it. When burnt it releases dioxins — deadly toxins. Wonder chemical or chemical of death? Who is going to steer the industry towards, not just cleaner production. But to manufacture “clean” products. Clearly, it would be in the interest of the caustic-chlorine industry to ensure long-term usage of their product. In that case, should they not be steering the entire industry towards finding environmentally safe uses? But this needs leadership. It needs foresight.

Most of all, the terms of engagement must change. The circle of responsibility must be extended. The green rating of the caustic-chlorine teaches us this.

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