Kodaikanal: The clean-up of the former factory site

31 March 2016

Following the settlement with our former workers in Kodaikanal, we continue to be determined to address the clean-up of our former thermometer factory site.

In 2001, it was brought to our attention that glass scrap, containing residual mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines. On discovering this, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) immediately shut down the factory and took all the glass scrap with residual mercury along with the soil from the scrap yard back to the factory for safe storage. Subsequently in 2003, HUL sent all mercury bearing material including the glass scrap from the scrap yard to a mercury recycler in the USA, after obtaining appropriate permissions.

The ceasing of operations in March 2001, the removal of all mercury-bearing material in 2003 and subsequently the decontamination and safe disposal of plant, machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing in 2006, have removed any risk of contamination to the ecologically sensitive region. However, we need to remediate soil within our factory premises.

To begin the clean-up, we need to receive consent from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) – the statutory authority. Permission to begin the clean-up at the set soil remediation standard of 20 mg/kg was granted in July 2008. The pre-remediation work began in 2009. However, in 2010, the TNPCB decided to have additional studies conducted by eminent national institutions in response to some activists contesting the soil clean-up standard of 20 mg/kg and subsequently asked HUL to stop the remediation work.

The TNPCB and the Scientific Experts Committee (SEC), appointed by Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, reviewed the studies and set the site specific clean up standard of 20 mg/kg. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) – the foremost organisation that deals with issues concerning pollution control under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India – to whom the TNPCB had referred the matter,also approved the clean-up standard.

Some activists have made misleading claims about this complex issue which has resulted in further confusion. We want to make sure that the facts are accurately represented.

Determining the clean-up standard

The proposed clean-up standard of 20mg/kg mercury has been determined based on a site specific risk assessment study. Taking into consideration factors such as soil type, exposure scenarios, and the sensitivity of receptors, both human and environmental. Important inputs to this proposal were:

  • A risk assessment study done by NEERI in 2007 as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee and the Site Specific Human Health & Ecological Risk Assessment study conducted by IIT Delhi in 2010.
  • A study on the impact on soil and soil erosion by Indian Institute of Soil and Water Conservation Research Centre, Ooty, in 2010.
  • A study on the impact and preservation of trees by National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, in 2011.

The expert studies conducted by these institutions of national repute were reviewed by the TNPCB and SEC before confirming 20 mg/kg as the applicable remediation standard in May 2013. The CPCB also confirmed this standard in April 2015 after reviewing the results of all these studies.

However, some activists are campaigning for the 20mg/kg standard to be arbitrarily lowered by incorrectly referring to preliminary screening criteria of various countries to make their case.

This is misleading because these screening criteria are solely intended to identify if a risk assessment of the site is warranted. They do not mean the affected site should be cleaned up to that level.

International best practice dictates that if soil remediation is required, the clean-up standard should then be determined based on a site-specific risk assessment - taking into consideration factors like the surrounding ecology, the soil type, and the expected human exposure levels.

The 20 mg/kg standard set by the TNPCB for the soil in the factory has been determined based on this site-specific risk assessment approach. At this level, not only would the soil be safe for a child to play in and to grow vegetables in, but the clean-up would be protective both for humans and the environment.

Remediating the soil at a lower standard will result in uprooting of more trees and greater soil excavation thereby leading to risk of much greater ecological damage in the hilly terrain where soil content is not uniform.

For example:

  • An estimated 300 trees will be affected / removed if the standard is 20 mg/kg. If the standard is taken to 6.6 mg/kg (as currently suggested by activists based on current Canadian Soil Quality Guideline), an estimated 3 to 4 times the number of trees would be affected / removed.
  • We estimate that the area to be excavated would be approximately 10,000 m2 if the standard is 20 mg/kg. If the standard is taken to 6.6 mg/kg, the area to be excavated would be around five times more – causing significantly greater disturbance of a fragile ecosystem, and implications for soil run-off and landslides.

Getting to work

TNPCB is the statutory authority to set the soil remediation standard. In consultation with SEC they have set the remediation standard to 20 mg/kg based on the risk assessment study at our former factory site in Kodaikanal. The CPCB has confirmed this standard which is based on science and follows international best practice. We believe it is in the best interests of Kodaikanal that we remediate the soil as soon as possible to a rigorous science-based standard, which is protective of both human health and the environment.

On 31 December, 2016, HUL received permission from TNPCB to commence preparatory work and trials for soil remediation at former factory site in Kodaikanal. 

HUL is committed to cleaning up the site.

Read a much more detailed background (PDF | 365KB) on this issue.

Question & Answers on soil remediation

Who set the remediation standard?

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) - the statutory authority which has the responsibility of protecting the environment in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the site is located - set the remediation standard for the clean-up.

TNPCB had consulted with both the Scientific Expert Committee (SEC), which was constituted by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, and the Central Pollution Control Board – the foremost organisation that deals with issues concerning pollution control under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India – while deciding the remediation standard.

How was the remediation standard set?

In line with international best practice, a site-specific risk assessment was carried out at our former site taking into consideration human and environmental safety. Following this a remediation standard of 20mg/kg was set by the TNPCB. At this level, it will be fully protective of human health and the environment.

This standard had been confirmed by the Scientific Expert Committee (SEC), which was constituted by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, and has also been validated by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) – the foremost organisation that deals with issues concerning pollution control under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India – to whom the TNPCB had referred the matter.

TNPCB had set the remediation standard basis review of extensive studies conducted by various eminent national institutions including National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, and the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research & Training Institute, Ooty.

Why is remediation work pending even after 15 years?

We remain fully committed to cleaning up the soil at our former factory and are eager to start work as soon as possible.

This has been a longstanding issue, dating back to 2001, when it was found that glass scrap with residual mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer in breach of our guidelines. HUL immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.

There was no adverse impact on the environment except in some areas within the factory premises which required remediation. This has been confirmed by many independent studies.

We sought permission as early as 2002 to begin the soil remediation, but it was not until 2007 that we received in principle approval to start work after a full analysis was carried out by NEERI.

During the intervening period, other remedial measures such as the export of mercury bearing material to US in 2003 and decontamination and disposal of plant and machinery in 2006 were undertaken.

Soil remediation work began in 2009, but was stalled the following year after some activists contested the clean-up standard – resulting in further studies being carried out by national institutions to assess the impact on matters such as tree preservation and soil erosion.

An additional Risk Assessment Study and review of the site specific clean-up standard was also carried out by IIT Delhi. The culmination of these studies – and visits by the TNPCB and the Scientific Experts Committee (SEC) to Kodaikanal – was the reconfirmation of the TNPCB set 20mg/kg standard by the SEC in 2013. The TNPCB referred this matter to the CPCB, who endorsed the standard of 20 mg/kg in 2015.

In 2015, Hindustan Unilever submitted a Detailed Project Report for soil remediation to the TNPCB, based on the soil remediation standard as recommended by the SEC.

On 31 December, 2016, HUL received permission from TNPCB to commence preparatory work and trials for soil remediation at former factory site in Kodaikanal. HUL is committed to cleaning up the site.

Why not go below 20 mg/kg?

  • The TNPCB set and CPCB approved 20mg/kg standard has been reached following internationally recognised best practice for determining site specific remediation criteria.
  • There is no science to back any reduction in the site specific remediation criteria, as it is not based on any site-specific risk assessment.
  • A remediation to the Canadian Soil Quality Guideline would not be any more protective to human health and the environment than a remediation to the site-specific mercury remediation standard.
  • A lower standard will lead to greater ecological and environmental damage on account of greater soil excavation and will lead to soil erosion & ecological imbalance in the hilly terrain where soil content is not uniform.
    • We estimate that 300 trees will be affected / removed if the standard is 20 mg/kg as set by the TNPCB and approved by the CPCB. If the standard is taken to 6.6 mg/kg (as currently suggested by activists based on current Canadian Soil Quality Guideline), an estimated 3 to 4 times the number of trees will be affected / removed.
    • We estimate that the area to be excavated would be approximately 10,000 m2 if the standard is 20 mg/kg as set by the TNPCB and approved by the CPCB. If the standard is taken to 6.6 mg/kg, the area to be excavated would be around five times more – causing significantly greater disturbance of a fragile ecosystem, and implications for soil run-off and landslides.

Are there international remediation standards for the clean-up of mercury-contaminated sites?

There is no single remediation standard for the clean-up of 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 or not and whether a site-specific clean-up standard should be established. These criteria vary from country to country and are different to the standards which regulators set when remediation is required. Remediation standards are based on a risk assessment study of the site in accordance with international best practice. The US Environmental Protection Agency, UK Environment Agency and European Environmental Protection Agencies follow this approach.

Some activists have claimed that 6.6 mg/kg is the remediation criteria that should be adopted for the site. What is your view?

The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF), Government of India, has not issued any document which proposes 6.6 mg/kg as the remediation standard.

Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has set the remediation standard based on site specific risk assessment study. This has been done as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. Even the guideline issued by CPCB in 2015 mandates site specific risk assessment for deciding remediation standard for remediating contaminated sites.

The TNPCB had in May 2015 stated that the Site Specific Target Level (SSTL) for our former factory in Kodaikanal should be 20 mg/kg after this standard had been validated by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) – the foremost organization that deals with issues concerning pollution control under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India – to whom TNPCB had referred the matter.

Arbitrarily lowering the remediation standard without any scientific basis can result in risks to the local ecology whilst not providing any additional benefit.

On 31 December, 2016, HUL received permission from TNPCB to commence preparatory work and trials for soil remediation at former factory site in Kodaikanal. HUL is committed to cleaning up the site.

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