CHENNAI: Environmental organisations and activists have called for an inquiry into the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), based on RTI documents that indicate their alleged collusion with Hindustan Unilever in downgrading remediation standards for mercury contaminated sites in Kodaikanal. “TNPCB and NEERI colluded with HUL to keep the public in the dark and dilute cleanup standards from the originally proposed 10mg/kg to 25mg/ kg of mercury in soil. This standard is 25 times lower than what Unilever adopts in its home country, the UK, which has a standard of 1mg/kg of mercury in soil for even residential areas,” says Rajagopal Durairaja of Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury (TNAAM).The result: more than 100 kg of mercury will now be left behind in the soil even after cleanup in the site, which is ecologically sensitive and houses 17 endemic species of plants. “The mercury factory lies entirely within the Pambar Shola watershed. Every drop of water from the factory drains out into the Pambar river, which gradually joins the Vaigai, an important source of drinking water, raising safety concerns,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, advisor to TNAAM.Activists also allege a conflict of interest. “Even while serving as a member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on mercury contamination in Kodaikanal by HUL, NEERI consented to serve as the company’s paid consultant, in a blatant display of conflict of interest and abuse of office. How can one expect stringent norms when the consulting authority itself is paid for by the company in question?” asks Jayaraman.In a letter to TNPCB in 2005, the Supreme Court monitoring committee had expressed concern over HUL directly financing the consultant, which was not in keeping with the committee’s directions.The dilution of standards, according to activists, happened over a period of time starting in 2005, when the existing public monitoring committee set up in 2001 with people’s representation by the then TNPCB chairman Sheela Rani Chungath, was sidelined and an experts’ committee comprising scientists alone took over.
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