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Clean chit to samples picked by Coke

Thiruvananthapuram, July 31: Coca-Cola country managers today released certificates from two private Kochi-based laboratories that waste discharge from its Kerala unit is non-toxic. The samples, however, were procured by the company without third party verification.

Coke vice-president (technical) D.S. Mathur, regional director Jaspal Singh and general manager Morris Wilson told reporters here today that the company did not plan to take BBC Radio 4 to court for its exposé nor close down Coke’s Kerala operations.

The press conference was organised in the backdrop of the BBC’s allegation of dangerous levels of lead and cadmium content in the sludge at the Coke unit at Plachimada in Kerala’s northern district of Palakkad.

The BBC report had said farmers have been using it as fertiliser. Cadmium is a carcinogen that can cause kidney failure while exposure to lead — especially among children — can lead to mental retardation, severe anaemia and is potentially fatal.

The issue was raised by the CPM-led Opposition in the Assembly in the current session.

The Coke officials faced a protest as they prepared to address the reporters. Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPM’s youth wing, activists thronged the gates of a hotel, the venue of the interaction, demanding the closure of the sole Coke plant in the state.

Police finally allowed two leaders in, who barged into the venue and distributed leaflets against the multinational company. The duo left after an unsuccessful bid to address the gathering.

Mathur clarified that the sludge was being given to local farmers as soil conditioner and not as fertiliser.

It was free from any toxic elements. Even the trace of lead (0.40 parts per million) in one batch was well below the safe Indian standard.

However, when asked whether the sample analysis done at the behest of the company did not lack transparency, Mathur said: “Our mechanism is sufficiently transparent since it conforms to the strict Environment Management System Standard ISO 14001:1996.”

The sludge used to be given on request and never thrust on the farmers. The same sludge was being used among the vegetation on the factory premises without any adverse effect.

Shying away from the option of legal action against the BBC, Mathur said: “It is all part of democracy and how will you feel if we initiated legal proceedings against anyone among you for your stories.” Mathur denied that the company was facing hostility in Kerala.

Asked why the company had not issued a rejoinder to the BBC Radio 4 charges, Mathur said he was dismayed by the amount of scepticism with which the media viewed the company’s version, though based on periodic assessments by statutory agencies like the State Pollution Control Board.

“It was a mere interpretation of the data collated by the BBC-sponsored investigators. We have no idea what they collected and how they collected the samples leading to their own interpretation,” he said.

The two all-clear reports presented by the company were from Poluchem Laboratories and SGS India Pvt Ltd, both based in Kochi. When it was pointed out that SGS India had barred its certificate from being used for “advertisement, evidence or litigation”, Mathur said he did not intend it as an advert.

At a separate press conference, local self-government minister Cherkalam Abdulla said the state government would not go against the people’s sentiment on the Coke issue, but underlined that “people” did not mean those of Palakkad alone.

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