Hindustan Unilever Ltd has clear-felled 425 trees as part of the remediation of mercury-contaminated soil in the four acres of its now-defunct factory in Kodaikanal, say activists.

Collage of Google Earth screenshots of deforestationImage credit: Chennai Solidarity Group
news Environment Wednesday, September 15, 2021 - 15:46

Sixty-five artists, educators, ecologists, and environmentalists have written to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Stalin urging the state to take action against Hindustan Unilever Ltd or HUL for cutting down hundreds of trees in Kodaikanal.  In January 2020, Unilever clear-felled 425 trees from its property in Kodaikanal which sees high soil mercury concentration. According to the letter, this has now exposed the toxic soil in the land which can now wash into the adjacent Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary and eco-sensitive Pambar-Shola evergreen forests threatening its ecosystem.

In the letter to CM Stalin, the 65 signatories sounded ‘a red alert’ against Unilevel for the large-scale deforestation. “It is shocking that the Scientific Experts Committee appointed to oversee remediation of the contaminated site has approved the clear-felling of trees without even a cursory environmental impact assessment. Not only that, they have failed to point out and act against Unilever’s failure to monitor the sediment and water entering the Pambar Shola as per the approved environmental monitoring plan,” the letter reads. The letter was signed by big names including Romulus Whitaker, Founder of Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank, S. Theodore Baskaran, Former Trustee, WWF-India and the likes. 

Unilever argues that the deforestation was done as part of the remediation of mercury-contaminated soil in the four acres of its now-defunct factory in Kodaikanal. However, the signatories argue that nowhere in Unilever’s Soil Remediation Upscaling Plan did it ask for trees to be cut inside the property.

While preparing the Remediation Plan, domain expert Soil and Water Conservation Research & Training Institute, Udhagamandalam, “insisted on steps that need to be taken during remediation to ensure that no trees are felled,” the letter read. It argued that this “cannot be set aside by the Scientific Experts Committee, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Forest Department without scientific basis or an assessment of the impacts of deforestation”.

The HUL Soil Remediation Upscaling Plan was made with directions from the Scientific Experts Committee, which was appointed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. HUL is expected to execute soil remediation based on this plan. 

The letter adds that the Experts Committee and its decision and the role of TNPCB and Forest Department need to probe and the approval to fell trees “is the basis of a crime against India’s wildlife”.  “Section 29 of the Wildlife Protection Act states that any action that enhances the flow of water into the sanctuary can only be done in accordance with a permit granted by the Chief Wildlife Warden. According to the enclosed study, the removal of trees is likely to have enhanced water flow into the sanctuary during heavy rain events by 243 m3/hr – from 162 m3/hr to 405 m3/hr,” the letter explained. The deforested land is sloping and receives plenty of rainfall. The soil- mercury erosion due to winds and rains into the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary will not only poison the aquatic food chain in the Pambar-Shola stream but also affect the downstream fish consumers, the letter further added. 

The letter has made three requests to the State government: 

  • To seek expert advice to identify measures that can be taken to mitigate damage to the sanctuary from water and soil runoff and nearby residents from exposure to contaminated dust.
  • To reconstitute the Scientific Experts Committee with credible experts.
  • To initiate an enquiry into how TNPCB and Forest Department permitted Unilever to clear-fell trees and endanger the Wildlife Sanctuary, and take action against them.

RTI exposes lapses by HUL in Soil Remediation

A September 14 response to an RTI filed by the Chennai Solidarity Group, an activist group, reveals that HUL  has not analysed soil and water samples from the silt traps in its site even once. The Remediation plan requires the company to do a weekly analysis of soil and water from its silt traps installed to arrest soil run-off, and from the stream crossing at Levange Path inside the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. For the 17 months since 425 trees were removed, Unilever ought to have taken a total of 952 samples. However, HUL has never analysed the soil and water samples. 

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) which is required to analyse soil and water for mercury concentration has failed to do so. The RTI response revealed that the Dindigul TNPCB office did not have any “records in the office.”

“The monitoring information and mercury mass balance are crucial to estimating the quantum of mercury leaking into the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Without such information, TNPCB and the Experts Committee have no basis to claim that all is well with the remediation. It is the hands-off approach of TNPCB and the Experts Committee that has led to the poisoning of the sanctuary,” said Meenakshi Subramaniam, a former member of the committee appointed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to oversee mercury remediation in Kodaikanal. 

Nityanand Jayaraman of the Chennai Solidarity group says, “The failure to monitor allows Unilever to wash out tonnes of mercury into the shola without any oversight. Most of these offenses have occurred during the tenure of the previous government. We hope that the present government will ensure that Unilever, TNPCB and the errant experts are held to account”. 

Further, Jhatkaa.org, a campaigning organisation along with the Chennai Solidarity Group has initiated a campaign to demand urgent action against HUL. The online petition has received around 8000 signatures so far.

Here is the link to the petition.

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