More Watery Woes for Coke?
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
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.
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