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Kerala to Bengal: toxic sludge follows colas

Calcutta, Aug. 8: Coca-Cola and Pepsi found themselves mired in controversy again, this time in Bengal, with environment minister Manab Mukherjee disclosing that the sludge and liquid effluent discharged from their four plants contained toxic metals cadmium and lead.

The state government had collected sludge and liquid effluent samples from the four manufacturing plants — three Coke and one Pepsi — in the state after the BBC’s disclosures on the high cadmium and lead content in the sludge from Coke’s Palakkad factory in Kerala. The samples were tested at the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) laboratory.

“Not only do the tests confirm that two highly toxic metals are present in the manufacturing process in these plants, additionally none of the units had declared in their applications for consent to operate that they had process inputs containing lead and cadmium,” Mukherjee said at Writers’ Buildings this afternoon. He added that “action would be taken as per PCB norms”.

The sludge samples from all three Coke plants showed cadmium levels that had reached the hazardous limit while in the Pepsi sample, it was below the permissible limit. Cadmium is a carcinogen that can cause kidney failure. Exposure to lead, especially among children, can cause mental retardation, severe anaemia and could be potentially fatal.

The pollution board had collected samples discharged from the effluent treatment plant of Coca-Cola’s unit in Jalpaiguri, those run by franchisees in Dankuni and Calcutta and from the Pepsi unit at Narendrapur on the southern fringes of the city. While the minister circulated a report containing the test results on cadmium and lead for all four plants, the liquid effluent test report was that of the Coke plant in Dankuni.

“The reports of the liquid effluents of the other plants will be available shortly,” the minister stated. The bottled drinks are also being examined for the presence of these two metals.

The two multinationals will be given letters on Monday asking them how these toxic elements were found in their plants’ effluents, with a deadline of 10 days. “During this period the plants have been asked not to dispose of the sludge in the usual manner and confine it in a manner that it does not leach out,” Mukherjee said.

In a statement, Diamond Beverages Private Limited, Taratala, one of the manufacturers for Coca-Cola, said tests conducted by an accredited testing laboratory have shown that the cadmium and lead in the sludge “are within the permissible norms”. The statement added: “We will continue to work under the guidance of the pollution control board to uphold and improve the environment standards in our operations.”

In the Coke plants, the level of cadmium stood at 50, 76 and 80 mg per kg at the Jalpaiguri, Calcutta and Dankuni plants respectively. At Pepsi’s Narendrapur unit, it stood at 27.12. According to standards set by the Government of India, solid waste is categorised as hazardous if there is more than 50 mg per kg of cadmium in it. Therefore, the pollution board report points out that two Coke units were beyond limits.

Pollution board scientists who regularly monitor the plants said that in all the four units, the dry sludge was disposed of in either on-site open spaces or on adjacent fields. “We had allowed this so far as we were not aware of the presence of these metals in the solid waste,” a senior official said.

While the Jalpaiguri Coke plant recycled the treated water to wash bottles and raise ground water levels, the other plants either discharge the liquid into adjacent drains or in canals.

For lead, the sludge passed the test with levels far below the permissible limit. But the liquid effluent collected from both the inlet and the outlet of the effluent treatment plant of Dankuni unit showed high level of lead. While the inlet liquid contained 0.295 mg per litre, the outlet had 0.276 mg per litre. The permissible limit for lead in liquid discharge is 0.1 mg per litre.

Mukherjee said he had contacted the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to take up the issue at the national level.

Test reports to detect the presence of pesticides in Coke and Pepsi sold in Bengal are still awaited. State health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra said the results would be available in a day or two. “The state government cannot exercise any authority in matters where standards have been set by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Whether such standards should be questioned or redefined is for the union health ministry to take up,” he said.

Efforts to get the versions from the two companies proved to be futile as none of those contacted “got back”.

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