In 1888 the Glass Thermometer Company was founded in Watertown, which owes its birth and name to the Black River. Its proximity to the cities of New York and Washington and the emerging Canadian market across Lake Ontario meant that Watertown was the perfect location for the factory. The easy availability of water to run operations and the convenience of discharging mercury waste into the river offered a win-win situation. However, following the tightening of environmental regulations in the United States, the company moved its operations to Kodaikanal in 1983. In 1988, it became part of Unilever.
Pollution control laws were in their infancy during the 1980s in India, which helped Hindustan Lever register as a “glass manufacturing unit” rather than one dealing with a dangerous metal like glass. mercury. Two decades later, procedural omissions proved fatal for workers and costly for the company. A separate public hearing held a year after the factory closed in 2002 documented at least two dozen cases of acute illnesses and deaths among former factory workers. In fact, corporate crimes were committed, resulting in an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount for some 600 former workers.
Heavy metal is an in-depth account of how a multinational company ignored human and natural well-being in the pursuit of profit, leading to worker deaths and the irreversible poisoning of a pristine ecosystem. In fact, the Minamata Bay mercury poisoning episode in Japan in the 1950s had been repeated. No lessons seemed to have been learned, as the horrific dangers of mercury remained systematically underestimated and ignored in the developing world. At the top, the company claimed the “highest standards of corporate behavior towards employees, consumers and society.” Corporate claims are often beyond public scrutiny, as the regulatory regime often provides them with the convenience of safe passage. In the name of progress and growth, ecological disasters are sometimes presented as an exceptional aberration in the larger picture of things. Since public memory is short-lived and court proceedings drag on for years, corporate crimes end up being a small entry that is soon forgotten in the annals of environmental history.
The Kodaikanal tragedy could have been avoided if due diligence had been followed at all stages, from choosing the factory site and managing worker safety to complying with waste disposal guidelines and environmental norms. . Instead, the company violated all acceptable guidelines for the disposal of toxic waste that causes serious harm to all forms of life. Ameer Shahul, a journalist turned public policy advocate, has weaved a tragic tale of greed and deceit for which local communities and nature have paid a heavy price. If there had not been environmental surveillance organizations, both alerted individuals and committed organizations, the disaster would not have been reported. Heavy metal is an absorbing narrative about how the collective efforts of civil society actors forced a corporate giant to close its polluting operations in 2001.
But it’s about more than just shutting down a business for violating all acceptable standards. Never before has a developing country sent a shipment of waste material to a developed country. This “reverse dumping” case was not easy to execute. Greenpeace, a global environmental watchdog, had facilitated the shipment of 1,416 drums filled with 290 tonnes of hazardous mercury waste from the Kodaikanal thermometer factory to its final destination in Pennsylvania in 2003. As a Greenpeace activist, Shahul was in the core of everything.
Heavy metal It seems like a biography of mercury, the only liquid metal that exists at room temperature. Although widely used in electronic and medical applications, mercury waste is hazardous. As a result, in recent times, the United States and many European countries have gradually phased it out. However, as alternatives are expensive, devices that use mercury are still produced and marketed in many Asian countries. Exposure to liquid metal and its impact on flora and fauna have not been extensively studied and in the absence of scientific evidence, the full impact of the Kodaikanal disaster on the entire ecological system may remain speculative.
Written with passion and clarity, this book raises many compelling questions: Has the disaster made the environmental regulatory process more powerful and effective? Has corporate negligence been held liable under the law? Have sufficient measures been taken to help prevent future disasters of this type? Are research protocols better today for collecting scientific evidence? Have remediation measures been developed to detoxify contaminated sites? Each of these and related questions demand credible answers.
Heavy metal, which chronicles the fight for environmental justice in India, also shows how elusive it is despite decades of social activism. As activism has been strangled of late, corporate neglect of environmental regulations may remain lax. By telling the story of this disaster in a compelling way, Shahul clearly hopes that readers will be alert to capture future corporate manipulations of the system when it comes to environmental obligations.
This terrifying warning about corporate negligence is essential reading.
Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.