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Unilever moots same Kodaikanal clean-up it offered six years ago

From raising dust over the issue, the focus is now centred on whether Unilever needs to walk the extra mile in cleaning up.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Sep 01, 2015, 10.04 AM IST
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From raising dust over the issue, the focus is now centred on whether Unilever needs to walk the extra mile in cleaning up.
From raising dust over the issue, the focus is now centred on whether Unilever needs to walk the extra mile in cleaning up.
CHENNAI: For the activists taking on Hindustan Unilever for mercury contamination in Kodaikanal, the more things appear to move forward, the more they remain stationary.

Just as hope began to build around a soil clean-up that meets their demands, a Detailed Project Report from Unilever recently has offered bringing mercury levels in the soil down to 20mgkg (parts per million). This incidentally is the same standard floated by Unilever six years back, which NGOs refused to accept as they thought it was not enough and could set a bad precedent to corporate clean-ups in the future.

From raising dust over the issue, the focus is now centred on whether Unilever needs to walk the extra mile in cleaning up. The company's mercury thermometer factory which downed its shutters in 2001 had its southern wall close to a protected natural sanctuary, the Pambar Shola forest.

The plant also sits about half a kilo metre from the Pambar river. The factory was shut after it was found to have breached protocol in mercury disposal, but the issue of cleaning up the area drags on even a decade and half after.

"It's been a 14-year struggle now, and after a long time we were allowed to express our thoughts on the standard, but the standard itself has not gotten any better. We hope it is not the last word on the clean-up work," says Navroz Mody, a member of the Local Area Environment Committee. Mody, along with the com mittee members, met state pollution regu ators and HUL executives on August 28 to alk about the standard. During that meet, HUL officials had explained the DPR, the process of clean-up and safety actors associated with it.

In its proposal, HUL has estimated 5,2006,900 tonnes of soil to be dug up, and cleaned through a process of "washing" and vacuum retorting to separate the mercury.

Activists had wanted to know more about a Risk Assessment Study conducted by National Environment Engineering Research Institute and verified by IIT Delhi.

"The southern side of the factory slopes away into a dense forest. There is a water body not very far from the factory. We wanted to know on what basis they had arrived at 20 mgkg," said Mody.

Hindustan Unilever, in a statement to ET, said a clean-up standard is different from "screening criteria," which are used to find out if a site is contaminated.

The statement said: "There is no single clean-up standard for mercury contamination either in India or any other country. Some countries have established preliminary screening criteria, which are used by regulators to determine whether a site is potentially contaminated. These screening criteria vary from country to country and are different from the standards that regulators set when remediation is required, which is based on a risk assessment study of the site in accordance with international best practice.

The US EPA, UK Environment Agency and European Environmental Protection Agencies all follow this approach."

Now, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board is making an attempt to ease the deadlock and make both agree to a remediation standard.
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