More Watery Woes for Coke?
Kudrat Bhatia
Times of India
July 21, 2006

NEW DELHI: Over two years after the controversial Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada in Kerala was shut down, a new report claims that "the concentration of chromium, cadmium and lead in water bodies around the premises is much above permissible limits".

The report was released earlier this week by the Hazards Centre and the Dehradun-based People's Science Institute. The NGOs said they had been invited by the village panchayat to test the water quality and learn about the problems faced by the villagers living near the Hindustan Coca Cola Pvt. Ltd plant at Plachimada in Palghat.

"The fact is that there is clear contamination", says Dunu Roy, Director, Hazards Centre. The team, Roy said, had collected nine water samples, five from open wells and four from bore wells in distances ranging from 10 to 750 meters from the Coca-Cola plant.

"All the nine samples contained chromium in excess of limits prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Water from four of the five open wells contained cadmium and lead above the limits; water from all the bore wells contained cadmium above the limit, and half of them had excess lead," Roy said.

Coca-Cola disputes the claim. "Water is the most critical resource for a beverage company like ours and we have a special interest in protecting our watersheds. The Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL) plant at Palakkad has been closed since March 2004. It is a zero discharge plant. If the report be true, the highest concentration of heavy metals should be within the plant premises. However, none of the wells studied within the plant have ever shown heavy metal presence beyond permissible limits," an HCCBPL spokesperson said.

The Coke plant in Plachimada was commissioned in March 2000. According to a report by leading environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva, the village panchayat had issued a conditional license for installing a motor for drawing water.

However, the company was accused of illegally extracting millions of litres of clean water from more than six bore wells. Shiva's report says there was severe water shortage, crop cultivation was affected and when the company failed to furnish details to the village panchayat , the licence was cancelled.

On February 17, 2004, the Kerala government ordered the closure of the plant under pressure from a growing movement on the issue.

Environmentalists defend the need to test water samples even after the plant has been closed for some time. "It is right to test the samples even if the unit is not operating. Toxic content remains for long. Toxins are non-degradable. They just transform. Chromium, when absorbed by living organisms, forms compounds. Agent Orange may be degradable, but not heavy metals." says Indu Shekhar Thakur, associate professor at the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Some forms of chromium lead to cancer, he says. "Lead affects the gastrointestinal tracts. Skin patches are caused by chromium. These heavy metals may not cause still birth, but may affect the reproductive system in some ways."

Chandra Bhushan, assistant director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based NGO that aims at increasing public awareness on science, technology, environment and development, too warns about the harmful effect of toxins in water.

"The high toxicity of water is lamentable and may be a cause for concern. Lead is a neuron toxic heavy metal and it affects brain development. High concentration of lead does affect the reproductive system and causes birth defects," Chandra said.

About likely health problems caused by contaminated water in Plachimada, the HCCBPL spokesperson says: "If this is true and can stand scientific scrutiny, then this is really of concern." But he insists that any such charge requires scientific evidence.

Coke maintains that: "The geo-hydrological topography of the area suggests that our plant and the colony studied are located in different watersheds. The groundwater flows in two different directions in the area. Hence both the watersheds are hydro-geologically independent. It is therefore out of question that the contamination around the wells be attributed to Coca-Cola."

But Chandra Bhushan does not buy the argument. "It is ridiculous to say that there is a natural divide. Aquifers are porous structures and that is why they are called unconfined. Water interactivity from one aquifer to another is possible. The pace of water and movement increases when you extract water in huge quantities. I am not surprised at all about high levels of cadmium, chromium or even lead."

Experts say that sludge discharged by the Coca-Cola plant and given out as fertilizer to farmers could have leached into the water bodies and caused contamination. "It was a fairly well established fact that the sludge generated out of the Coca Cola plant at Plachimada contained high levels of cadmium", says Sunita Narain, Director of CSE.

Such sludge can cause health concerns. A.K Mittal, assisant professor of Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi says, "Any industrial sludge is injurious and cannot be used as a fertilizer in most cases".

But Coca-Cola denies promoting the use of sludge as a fertilizer, and claims that secure landfills were constructed for the disposal of waste. Among the many accusations that HCCBPL finds itself up against is that of giving social responsibility a go by, a charge that the company will not allow, insisting that it has given back to society as much as it has taken. It points to its effort at rain water harvesting in this context.

"The company was not guilty of extracting too much water and it was aware of its social responsibility and of the water shortage in India. It has created a huge rain water harvesting system inside and outside the plant to replenish more than 60% of the drawing capacity", maintains the HCCBPL spokesperson.

Chandra Bhushan brushes this aside too: "To deflect attention, they will use this tactic of rain water harvesting. It is sheer showmanship", he says, adding that "Within the unit at Plachimada, Coca Cola cannot harvest more than 30% of its requirements. The other 70% will have to be taken from the ground water."

He is also sceptical about test results furnished by HCCBPL that show permissible levels of the metals in water from the area. These tests have been conducted for the company by SGS Chennai and have been given a clean chit by both the State Ground Water Board, Kerala, and the Central Ground Water Board, New Delhi.

Chandra Bhushan says the tests reflect a conflict of interest. "You pay some private laboratories and get your samples tested. You need to have an oversight mechanism to regularize testing. The SGS laboratory results and many others cannot be believed as they are in some or more ways influenced by the big manufacturers", he says.

In the eye of a storm for long, HCCBPL has now asked The Energy Research Institute (TERI) to conduct an independent assessment of water resource management practices at its bottling facilities in India.

"This assessment is a demonstration of our willingness to listen, learn and make improvements where necessary," says the company spokesperson.

Both CSE and the Hazards Centre claim that Coca Cola is facing similar problems at plants in Jaipur and Allahabad. Dunu Roy says his institute will carry out comprehensive studies at these sites too.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.




Home | About | How to Use this Site | Sitemap | Privacy Policy

India Resource Center (IRC) is a project of Global Resistance -- "Building Global Links for Justice"
URL: http://www.IndiaResource.org Email:IndiaResource (AT) igc.org