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TN asks ‘polluting’ thermometer unit to pack up

Chennai, April 17: The Tamil Nadu government, which shut down the only thermometer-manufacturing unit in the state for polluting the environment, has decided not to allow a new facility to come up.

The decision was taken recently on the basis of a recommendation by the state pollution control board.

Two hundred and fifty-six tonnes of hazardous “mercury-bearing glass scrap” and 17 tonnes of waste from the Kodaikanal factory’s “effluent treatment plant” have reached Tuticorin on way to the US, “the country of the mercury’s origin”.

Environmentalists, NGOs and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board worked together in the first major operation to ask a powerful MNC — Cheese Boroughs Ponds, which later merged with Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) — to leave.

Pollution control board sources said the company, “either by mistake or oversight”, had sold broken thermometers containing traces of mercury to a small scrap-yard in Kodaikanal, where it set up shop in 1983.

The first alert that mercury-stained glass scrap had slipped out of the factory came on March 11, 2001, from Greenpeace, an international environment organisation.

Pollution control board scientists examined the samples, found the company guilty under the Environment Protection Act and ordered its closure in March 2001, sources said.

Since the Kodaikanal factory was a 100 per cent export-oriented unit, nothing was supposed to move out of its premises without Customs clearance.

But the contaminated glass scrap found its way out and 7.44 tonnes were removed from the scrap yard and taken back to the factory, along with 2.70 tonnes of soil from the place.

Sources said that when the ‘serious mistake’ was brought to the company’s notice, it agreed to cooperate with the pollution board to take remedial steps instead of opting for litigation.

“This has been a major silent victory for us. The unit was permitted at a time when environmental awareness was low. It went up dramatically after the Bhopal gas leak in December 1984,” sources said.

Once the contaminated samples were detected in March 2001, they had to be taken back to the factory before the monsoon. Otherwise, the “mercury would have leached out, causing greater damage to the hill environment”. A quick safe protocol was devised and “everything was taken back” to the company warehouse by the end of May 2001.

Two international consultants were then roped in to study the environmental impact of the thermometer factory in Kodaikanal. A working committee of representatives of the pollution control board, the industry, NGOs and technical experts was also formed.

The consultants, who did the mercury analysis in an Australian government laboratory, readied their report in July 2002 after a-more-than-a-year study. It was handed over to the working committee in October 2002.

The report detailed some ‘hot spots’ in and around the factory that were contaminated by mercury. Since the mercury for the factory was sourced from the US, the working committee decided that it should be shipped back there.

Based on this decision, the company approached the Union ministry of environment and forests, which recently cleared the export of the hazardous material to the US.

Board scientists devised safety protocols and trained workers to pack the material into nearly 1,500 drums. The packing took 20 days and the workers were made to wear ‘respirators’, besides protective aprons.

The container with the hazardous substances has now reached Tuticorin port and is expected to set sail on April 23 to the ‘Bethlam Apparatus company’ in Pennsylvania State in the US, which has a facility for recovery of mercury, it is said.

Sources said the Indian company has so far spent close to Rs 6 crore on the clean-up operation. The equipment used for making thermometers at the Kodaikanal plant will be “totally broken up” after being decontaminated.

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