Irregularities in Coke's Clean Chit to Toxics as Fertilizer
R. Krishnakumar
April 23, 2005

In July-August 2003, when soft-drink firms across the country were struggling to contain the impact of the discovery of pesticide residues in their products, in Kerala, Coca-Cola came under intense scrutiny for distributing sludge from its bottling unit at Plachimada in Palakkad district containing cadmium and lead to local farmers, making them believe it was manure.

To this day, nobody is sure why a company producing soft-drinks and bottled water should discharge toxic elements that have serious health effects on human beings or whether the waste products would be non-hazardous if and when the company resumes production at its unit in view of the April 7 ruling by a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court.

Although Coca-Cola announced through its web site in September 2003 that "Coke plant bio-solids are non-hazardous, says Kerala government", based on a press release issued by the then Member-Secretary of the State Pollution Control Board, senior Board officials told Frontline that the source of heavy metal toxicity had never been disclosed by the company or found out otherwise by the Board. Neither was the subsequent inquiry, which certified that the solid waste generated in the company were non-hazardous, "done in a proper manner", they said.

There are indeed two sides to the clean chit given by the Board then, after what was, for all intents and purposes, "literally a private inquiry by a few Board officials" ordered by the then Health Minister P. Sankaran.

Vigilance inquiries were subsequently instituted against some of the officials who conducted the investigation, significantly, under the orders of the then Chief Minister, A.K. Antony. Some of the officials have since sought voluntary retirement.

In August 2003, soon after a BBC Radio 4 inquiry found "dangerous levels of cadmium and other toxins, including lead" in the sludge samples it had collected from the Coca-Cola factory neighbourhood, the then Chairman of the State Pollution Control Board, Paul Thatchil, ordered an inquiry and an analysis of sludge and wastewater samples from the factory premises at the Board's central laboratory in Kochi.

On August 6, Paul Thatchil held a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram "without the permission of his superiors", including the Health Minister, and announced that the results of the investigation justified the findings of BBC Radio 4. In fact, he said, although the effluent (wastewater) conformed to the safety standards, the concentration of cadmium in the sludge was of a dangerously high level (201.8 mg per kg of sludge, almost double the value found by the BBC Radio 4 inquiry) and that the sludge came under the purview of the Hazardous Wastes Rules. The permissible (Indian) limit for cadmium was 50 mg/kg and for lead 500 mg/kg. In the Board's analysis, the concentration of lead (319.0 mg/kg) was found to be within the permissible limit. The concentration of heavy metals was within limits in the tested samples of effluents. (BBC Radio 4 did not test the effluent samples from the region.)

Paul Thatchil said at his press conference and later in an interview to Frontline that the results were indicative of a high concentration of heavy metals and that the sludge had to be classified as hazardous waste. The Board also instructed the company not to let the sludge out of the factory premises or let anyone use it as manure.

Coca-Cola soon released "reassurance advertisements" in major newspapers, claiming that a section of the media was indulging in a misinformation campaign about its Plachimada plant and that the latest tests conducted by the company at a nationally accredited agency in Hyderabad had shown that the presence of cadmium and lead was "well below the permissible limits".

Strangely, at about the same time, Health Minister Sankaran announced that another "detailed inquiry" would be conducted - significantly, not under the Chairman of the Board but by the Member-Secretary, K.V. Indulal, and two environmental engineers.

The results of the second inquiry, favouring Coca-Cola's claims, soon adorned the web site of the company.

Senior officials of the Board now say that the study was "deeply flawed" and the results "untrustworthy". According to one of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity:
  1. The investigation itself was carried out in late August 2003 when only one or two of the total seven products of the company were being manufactured. As such the production process on the two days when the team conducted its investigation was not representative of the usual production pattern in the bottling unit. Yet, the team concluded that `the solid waste generated would not come under the purview of the Hazardous Wastes Rules,' even though its report recommended that the `solid waste from the unit should be handled as a hazardous waste with utmost precaution';
  2. Though the investigation was ordered also to find out the quality of raw water used by the company, out of the six tubewells and two dugwells in the premises, water from only one well was sampled; out of the unspecified number of ponds, tanks and containers, samples from only one each was tested; the team also did not test samples from drilled/dug-out soil from the wells;
  3. The team did not investigate effluent generated from the raw water treatment plant and samples were taken only from the process wastewater treatment plant. Effluents from the nearly 12 individual treatment units were also not sampled. Samples of materials and chemicals used in the manufacture of the products were also not sampled;
  4. The team did not take samples of sludge from the soil or that applied on land within the factory premises or the unused sludge collected back from the farmers;
  5. The report talks about the samples from the wells in the factory's neighbourhood as well as inside, without specifying the type of well or the criteria adopted in choosing them. The cadmium content in many of them is recorded to be 0.01 mg/l - in fact, the maximum permissible limit - even though the report brushes aside this fact by stating, for example, that `only 0.01 mg/l of cadmium' is seen. In the panchayat well, near the factory, the cadmium content in the water was found to be 0.02 mg/l, twice the limit specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The BIS specifies that cadmium concentration above 0.01mg/l renders the water toxic and no relaxation of the standard is permissible;
  6. The report actually states that in the analysis of four wells on the eastern side of the factory, only in one of them, the panchayat well, was a small quantity of cadmium (0.02mg/l) detected. It then states that `the results do not hence show any heavy metal pollution of the wells on the western side owing to the working of the company;
  7. The investigation had relied entirely on the samples collected by the then investigation team constituted under the direct instruction of the then Minister for Health. The results of the analysis of samples collected by the Board's Palakkad district office under the direction of the then Chairman on July 29, 2003, or that collected by the Central Pollution Control Board on September 12, 2003, were not considered before the press release was issued even though the latter studies proved the presence of cadmium (201.8 mg/kg and 181.2 mg/kg respectively) above the permissible level of 50 mg/kg.

According to Board officials, the results of the study were announced by Indulal through a press release on September 29, 2003, "without the knowledge of the then Chairman". The press statement stated that "the wells located around the company and land applied with the sludge as manure are not contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, lead, chromium, etc". A senior official of the Board said it was unimaginable that officials of the Board could be so callous about the toxic levels in the water unknowingly consumed by the local people.

But in the wake of droughts for two consecutive years, the issue of water shortage caused by the exploitation of groundwater by the soft-drink behemoth submerged the equally serious one of water pollution.

In a press statement issued on April 13, Health Minister K.K. Ramachandran said that there was no question of the Pollution Control Board allowing Coca-Cola to resume operations at Plachimada without the company complying with the directives of the Supreme Court's Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, which had asked it to install reverse osmosis or an equivalent processes to purify wastewater and to supply drinking water to the affected people.

In its report submitted after a visit to the factory on August 14, 2004, the Supreme Court committee had said that "the company was unable to convince it of the source of the toxic heavy metals found in the sludge"; that it was provided reports from various government authorities "that the water was unfit for drinking"; and that "it was not the case before the factory was established in the area".

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