‘We Sent 300 Tonnes Of Mercury Waste Back To The US. It Was A Milestone For Anti-Dumping Campaigns’

07 Apr 2023 16 min read  Share

Journalist and former Greenpeace campaigner Ameer Shahul’s book Heavy Metal recounts the nearly two-decade campaign mounted by the people of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu against a global corporation that perpetuated India's gravest mercury-poisoning catastrophe, causing environmental destruction and requiring an unprecedented remediation of the soil.

Mumbai: In 2004, a thermometer factory owned by Hindustan Unilever (HUL) in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, was found to have dumped a large pile of broken thermometers in a local scrapyard in a locality called Munjigal, in violation of norms for toxic waste disposal methods. According to reports, the company had dumped over 7 tonnes of mercury-contaminated glass waste in the scrapyard located on the slopes behind the factory.

As the local community, aided by environmental watchdog Greenpeace and other public-interest organisations, mounted a 15-year battle seeking justice, in 2015 HUL arrived at a settlement involving an undisclosed amount with ex-workers of the factory. In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered a remediation exercise for the contaminated soil of the now-closed factory site, a process that continues. 

In Heavy Metal: How A Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal (published by Pan Macmillan India), former investigative journalist Ameer Shahul, who led the Greenpeace campaign in Kodaikanal for two years, provides an account of corporate negligence that caused extensive ecological and public health damage, considered next only to the Bhopal gas tragedy.

In an interview, Shahul told Article 14 that there were some unaddressed issues even two decades since the incident, including scientific studies to assess the damage caused to local flora and fauna and the environment beyond the site of the factory. 

Studies by Greenpeace and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on lichen and moss samples, including on samples from up to 20 kilometres away from the factory, found high levels of mercury poisoning. Eventually, 300 tonnes of mercury waste from the closed Kodaikanal factory were sent to the US for recycling and permanent retirement, an event Shahul calls a “milestone”. 

The book also recounts how a thermometer plant ended up being located in a once-pristine hill station, and Shahul said the chase for economic growth has led to acts of commission and omission across various sites of ecological disaster in India.

Shahul, who now works in the areas of emerging technology, healthcare and green policies, is a former journalist with the Press Trust of India, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. Excerpts from the interview: 

You’ve captured a story of corporate neglect and lack of corporate accountability over years in Kodaikanal, once the queen of our hill stations. How did that story actually begin?

Kodaikanal is a beautiful place, and it used to be even more so two or three decades ago. Over a period of time, it has become completely urbanised, not just because of the HUL factory, but also because of the inflow of tourists and many visitors wanting to settle down there. In addition, there were small factories coming up, land use conversion from forests and farming to industrial and residential, all of which have contributed to the deterioration of Kodaikanal as a beautiful hill station.

The Kodaikanal mercury poisoning issue goes back to the 1980s when the HUL thermometer factory was set up there. Operations continued for about 18 years. I was not involved at the very beginning when the mercury waste in Kodaikanal was discovered and when the campaign for justice began, led by locals. There are many unsung heroes, the most important of them being Navroz Mody. In the acknowledgments section of the book, I have mentioned that he deserves national recognition for the kind of stellar work he has been doing. He was born and brought up in Mumbai, but for almost 18 years he was co-living with the factory, just a few yards away.

He was a very aware citizen, and an environmentally involved person. When he caught hold of the mercury dump and began a campaign, that became the turning point, besides helping environmentalism take off in the region. I was with Ramchandra Guha last Sunday, and as you know, he started his career as an environmental historian, and he too appreciated these works. 

My contribution is insignificant in the overall environmental campaigns of the country. Environmentalism is happening in many pockets, small towns, not just on industrial pollution, but also on massive urbanisation and on conversion of forest land for agriculture and agricultural land for residential purposes and so on. I believe it is important for people to pick up the signals at the right time, and highlight that to the rest of the world so that such atrocities can be prevented.

When did you decide that your reportage called for a book length project? How did you begin chronicling the journey of Kodaikanal?

I was involved in the Kodai mercury poisoning campaign in the very early stages, though not in the beginning. I took a break from my journalism career and spent almost two years in Kodaikanal, shuttling between the Greenpeace office in Bangalore and the local communities. I worked with people like Navroz, Meena Subramaniam and quite a few good souls, ex-workers, NGOs from Tamil Nadu who were very active at that time in campaigning  on the issue.

One thing I thought was critical was establishing the science behind the issue. I got involved with the DAE studies on the issue by highlighting them to the media and exposing the company using scientific evidence. Secondly, we were able to send the 300 tonnes of mercury waste back to the US. That was a critical moment in the campaign. It was a milestone not just for India, but also to the rest of the world, that this is something that can be done. That when you are dumped with waste, there is a way you can send it back to the place of origin. The third was shareholder activism. Those were the three major highlights of my time there.

Once I moved on from the campaign, I kept in touch with the ex-workers and some of the lead campaigners over the last two decades. Then in 2015, an out-of-court settlement came through for ex-workers. In 2019, the final decision from the Supreme Court emerged on the issue of remediation standards. Nityanand Jayaraman (Chennai-based activist and writer) had gone to the Madras high court, and Navroz Mody had approached the National Green Tribunal and later the Supreme Court. The apex court verdict eventually upheld the green tribunal’s decision. That is when I thought that this campaign was coming to a conclusion, on the issue of workers and on the remediation of the factory land.

I also felt some issues had been left unaddressed. There were two parts to the campaign—one part was the workers’ issue as well as the remediation work, including the clean-up of the factory site and the waste recovered from the factory and nearby locations. That part was over by 2019 when the final decision came from the Supreme Court. 

The second part of the issue, however, was much larger—the devastation to the ecosystem surrounding Kodaikanal and the damage to the community at large. I felt these had not been addressed, mainly because of the lack of evidence.

(The first part was resolved not because of the evidence alone, but also because of the persistent campaign by the campaigners.) The first part ended more or less successfully because of the campaign, but the second part remains unaddressed, and I thought that highlighting that as a book would help generate awareness among the people.

In 2020, during the COVID lockdown when I had a lot of time at hand while being stranded at home, I picked up the pen and started writing.

Can there be a resolution to the wider environmental damage caused by the mercury dumping?

I don’t know whether there can be a resolution, but at least if people are made aware through this book, and if in future scenarios people are able to pick up signals very early on and start addressing issues of devastation of the ecosystems, that would be a worthy contribution from my side.

Tell us a little more about the damage to public health and to local flora and fauna. How was evidence for those gathered?

Three stellar studies, two by the DAE in 2002 and 2004, and the Greenpeace Research Laboratory study by the University of Exeter, UK, all came early in the campaign. They sufficiently established the poisoning by mercury on the flora and fauna.

There were multiple other studies too, many more are continuing to date. More good research papers on the topic will emerge soon. Those will surely give insights into different aspects of the devastation, including the impact of the mercury transportation, impact on different flora and fauna, and on human habitation.

But at this point it may not be possible to conclusively prove that certain fauna, for instance, have gone extinct because of mercury exposure. We still don’t have the data to support that. 

One big lapse I found was that around 2002 when the first study came from the DAE, a government of India institution, not a biased party, a very objectively done study compared to the Greenpeace study which may be described as biased as it was an interested party, no efforts for long-term data collection were initiated.

The study results came out two years after the factory’s closure, and it found mercury levels in the atmosphere up to 2,640 times higher than the normal levels. Had the regulator immediately made arrangements for regular mercury monitoring in the atmosphere there, we could have had data of monthly mercury levels in the air that would have, by now, given us almost 15 to 16 years of data. This may have helped to clearly state that mercury levels have come down from 2,640 times the normal to, say, 800 times or whatever it is today. That was a great aberration, a missed opportunity. 

On flora and fauna, I refer in my book about the sub-sholas of Pambar Shola, called Tiger Shola, Bear Shola etc, places where, once upon a time not so long ago, maybe about 50 years ago, there used to be plenty of tigers and plenty of bears visiting even in the daytime. They have completely disappeared. (Sholas are the local name for stunted tropical forest in the higher reaches of southern Indian hills and grasslands.)

The counter-argument  one could make is that this depletion is because of the tourist inflow and deforestation, but my counterpoint would be whether it can only be attributed to that, or did mercury poisoning play a critical role here? 

If we had done a study on mercury levels in the surroundings and another study on animal spotting in the area, at least from 2004 onwards, we could have conclusively established that the frequency of visits by these fauna have come down because of mercury in the air. That is another great missed opportunity.

On flora too, Father K M Matthew (a botanist who settled in Kodaikanal and documented flora of the region) whom I refer to in the book has had a wealth of information on local vegetation. Somebody could have picked up from there and started looking at which flora have gone extinct in the last 10 or 15 years. 

I plan to spend some time meeting students, especially in larger  universities, trying to tell them to pick up some of these aspects. As it is a globally noticed event, every single, simple aspect of it would be worth a PhD thesis. After all, institutions ranging from the United Nations to the EU to the International Atomic Energy Agency and related organisations were involved in this.

Not just for this campaign, but for many other things that could happen in our country, this can be a milestone, a benchmark for people to go back and pick up threads from science.

What was the impact on long-term human health over the years?

Impact of mercury poisoning on human health was another area where establishing science, through epidemiological studies and establishing the etiology of some diseases locals have been suffering from, has not happened. This is yet another missed opportunity. There was one epidemiological survey by the company immediately after the shutdown of the factory in 2002, conducted on the recommendation of the Indian People’s Tribunal

A collective of scientists and doctors from Bangalore got involved and did some preliminary work, collating data and meeting some of the ex-workers and locals. They tried to figure out whether people had any obvious symptoms of mercury poisoning. In the book you can see that their findings were countered by the company constantly. The team consisted of experts from all possible fields of medical science. They did a phenomenal job despite having access to only very crude preliminary data. What could have been done was to continue that study - somebody could have moved it to the next level, examining the larger population of workers, people living closer to the factory, documenting their symptoms over a period of time.

Mercury poisoning symptoms  develop slowly. For example, dementia-related symptoms that may occur due to mercury poisoning develop very slowly. Had we documented these things over a period of time, we could have, by now, established that mercury poisoning led to, say, X number of people developing dementia, or Alzheimer’s, or women facing reproductive health challenges. 

In my opinion, this is still not a lost opportunity. If the regulators or governments take some initiatives, we could still go back and start with a very basic survey.

It is very difficult to pinpoint a mercury-related illness for it is not possible to do through  conventional methods of diagnosis. You can’t go to a physician and ask her to check you for mercury-related illnesses. She will not be able to diagnose your symptoms as mercury-related, though she may find you have kidney failure or a neurological issue or dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

There is this question of how to connect a neurological illness or a nephrological illness to mercury exposure, for which we need data, and a different kind of experts. That has been missing. I believe that if someone undertakes a larger survey, you would certainly find people with mercury-related illnesses, but pinpointing that to mercury exposure from the Hindustan Unilever factory could be a challenge because of the lack of periodic mercury emission data from the factory. 

How did the government and government agencies respond during the campaign and during your effort to write this account?

Up to a certain period, there was tremendous support from the government. In the book, I have noted this period as until Sheila Rani Chunkath was at the helm of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. She was an officer who was not amenable to manipulations, she stood her ground and took pathbreaking steps. Had another officer been at the helm of the pollution control board, many things may not have happened as they did. Within a few days of the news emerging about the scrapyard mercury dump, she sent a team to assess the scrap yard. She gave instructions to shut down the factory, and many other things.

Our bureaucratic system is vulnerable to manipulations, especially in organisations like the pollution control board where industries are in regular touch with officers. Subsequent to Sheila Rani Chunkath’s tenure, we saw a pattern of absolute lack of support and cooperation, as if the campaigners were sworn enemies of the state. To give you one instance, Chunkath set up a committee called the local area monitoring committee, on the belief that involving the local community in monitoring something happening in their backyard was very important. She instructed her officers to involve the local community in everything that happened on the issue. Later, though that committee was still in existence, it wasn’t consulted for anything. 

To this day, if you approach the pollution control board with an RTI request for a document related to the Kodaikanal factory, you may not get it. Most of the relevant documents are now available in the public domain, but if you were to find something that could be of interest, which is not in the public domain, you will be told that those documents were destroyed because those were over a certain number of years old or some such thing.

The support from the regulator was very poor, but support came in from other quarters. For instance, Jairam Ramesh got involved and found that the issue should be addressed. He got Mallikarjun Kharge, who was the minister of labour at that point, to do a separate study by the ministry, which was in addition to a high court-appointed expert study. I think those were some very critical turning points in the campaign.

Tell us a little bit more about the remediation work that is still left to be done in Kodai.

The remediation work at the factory site is currently going on, monitored by the local community. The company submitted a protocol for the remediation, developed with the support of the CSIR-NEERI. Once that protocol was approved by the pollution control board, the challenge was the level of remediation that can be achieved in the soil in the 22 acres of the factory land. That is a tedious process, an electromechanical process, to clean the soil by taking it out, washing it inch by inch with chemicals, and then putting it back in the ground. I think it is probably a kind of work that has never happened in India.

The local community had suggested that the washing of the excavated soil has to be done elsewhere, so that the washed out mercury does not fall back in their surroundings.

With this completed, there could still be one question that would remain. What about the remediation of the surroundings beyond the factory land? Mercury in the air and soil will not stop just because of a boundary wall constructed by the company on its perimeter. 

Whether with Joshimath or Kodaikanal or other grave man-made ecological disasters, have you found that people in India forget the seriousness of the issue after time elapses. Is this frustrating as a journalist and activist?

In developed countries like the US, for instance, repeat occurrences are very rare.  In India, and other developing countries, such recurrence is common and this has to do with what we call as ‘economic progress’. In our quest for ‘economic progress’, we compromise many things, and the easiest of them are the environment and natural resources. That is a pattern we keep seeing. Our country is dotted with similar examples, whether industrial pollution cases or pollution caused by pesticides and chemicals, and so on and so forth. As long as people chase what we call ‘economic progress’, we all become very insular, and self-centric. 

We find in our circles that people claiming to be very concerned about ecology often use bottled water, and throw away plastic bottles after use. So at one level, we all want to protect our environment, but on the other hand we indulge in acts that destroy the planet. It has to do with our level of environmental awareness. 

We also need to offer people alternate options that are viable, manageable, feasible. On reducing plastics use, for example, there was a campaign in Tamil Nadu to use the old manjappai, or yellow traditional bag. The need of the hour is not just legislation to protect the environment, but micro-awareness among people. That is my wish.

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(Kavitha Iyer is Senior Editor with Article 14 and author of the award-winning book, Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought.)