‘The regulator should monitor mercury in the air in Kodaikanal’

We still do not know how far the atmospheric mercury levels have come down in the last two decades, Ameer Shahul tells Down To Earth as he talks about his new book on the Kodaikanal mercury pollution case

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Tuesday 07 March 2023

In 1984, global consumer goods conglomerate Unilever established a mercury thermometer factory in the idyllic south Indian hill town of Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. After the company had run its operations for 17 years, local community members and activists, aided by global non-profit Greenpeace, discovered a massive mercury dump in a nearby scrapyard in 2001. A year later, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered a shutdown of the factory and the matter reached Madras High Court. The multinational company initially denied wrongdoing. But as evidence of mercury contamination became hard to refute, Unilever settled the issue out of court, providing an undisclosed amount to about 600 of its employees in 2016.

Former AFP journalist Ameer Shahul's new book, ‘Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal’ is based on his reportage of the Kodaikanal case and later involvement with Greenpeace as a campaigner. He spoke to Down To Earth about the book and Kodaikanal. Edited excerpts: 

Nandita Banerji: What drew your attention to the events in Kodaikanal in 2002?

Ameer Shahul: It was a press release issued by Greenpeace that drew my attention while working with AFX (business wire of French press agency AFP) in New Delhi. Being a post graduate in marine biology who dealt with heavy metals as part of my studies and research, I thought that the situation could be very serious. I did not discern the seriousness of the impacts until I reached there and spoke to a cross section of the local people in 2002.

NB: What would you say to those who argue that the case is closed because the employees have been compensated?

AS: There are two parts to the issue of Kodaikanal mercury poisoning. The first is about the factory workers and the factory campus. Having completed compensation for the ex-workers and having been undertaking remediation of the 25 acre (about 10 hectares) factory site, the first part can be considered to be over once the ongoing cleanup is completed. The second and the larger part is the devastation done by the company because of the operations of the factory through dispersal of gaseous mercury into the atmospheres and by dumping mercury waste in the river streams and the surroundings. This is an area unaddressed and requires studies, regulatory actions and public outrage.

NB: You talk of mercury contamination in the Kodai lake, as demonstrated by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) study, a decade after the factory closed. What does this mean for the town’s ecology in the long run?

AS: We still do not know how far the atmospheric mercury levels have come down in the last two decades since the closure of the factory. At least since the time of the DAE study, there should have been annual or quarterly monitoring of the heavy metal in the air to assess whether the mercury levels have been coming down or not. The regulator would have commissioned this long ago which could have generated a reliable data set. At least now, the regulator should start monitoring mercury in the air in Kodaikanal. The consequence of mercury on the ecology of Kodaikanal is at catastrophic levels.

NB: You also explain in great detail the meaning of having the poisonous heavy metal pervade every corner of the country, and perhaps the world, by now. And yet this case seems to have disappeared from public memory.

AS: First and foremost is that mercury is all pervasive. It is there in the air we breathe if we are in the vicinity of a coal powered power plant. It is there in the fish we eat as most of the mercury ends up in waterbodies and oceans and enters the body systems of fishes. It is there in most electronic gadgets in use, and we often throw around the end-of-use gadgets. Proper disposal, if possible return to the seller, should be a must for all electronic gadgets—batteries, computers, measurement devices—with heavy metals.

NB: What are some of the governance changes that must be implemented to prevent such disasters?

AS: Factories dealing with hazardous raw materials or generating hazardous bye-products require close monitoring by the regulators, assisted by the local voluntary groups. Periodic audit of raw materials and hazardous waste should be made fool proof and should be done with the participation of the local community to ensure erring officials are not taken for a ride by factory management. Countries that are selling raw materials to other countries have a responsibility to take back the waste generated out of the raw materials.

NB: As you describe in the epilogue, some of the flora and fauna are vanishing from their endemic habitat.

AS: Human beings are just one organism facing the brunt. Every other organism, plant and animal, must be facing the heat. So are the waterbodies and air in the area. Many of the sub-sholas of Pambar Shola like Bear Shola, Tiger Shola which were named after animals that used to abound in the area are now devoid of these signature animals; so many plants disappeared from these regions in the recent past.

This was first published in the March 1-15, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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