Home Social Politics Tuticorin Massacre; If 13 not died of gunshot, the pollution could have killed them
Politics - Southern India - May 25, 2018

Tuticorin Massacre; If 13 not died of gunshot, the pollution could have killed them

Mirah Zamin

The death of 13 has resulted in the closure of Sterlite Copper but the rate at which the pollution has degraded the area can never be undone now.

Sterlite as locally know is a unit of London-listed resource conglomerate Vedanta resources private limited owned by Anil Agarwal. Sterlite Copper is a non-ferrous metal producer in Tuticorin since 1996. It ranks second in India and fourteenth in the world for Phosphoric acid production and third in Sulphuric acid production in India. The plant is less than 15 Km away from Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve which is home to more than 150 species of coral, the dugong, seagrass bed, pearl oysters and rich fisheries.

The Vedanta owned Sterlite Copper got its first nod from Tamil Nadu government in 1994 when the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued a ‘No Objection Certificate’ asking the company to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Considering the ecological sensitivity of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, the NOC carried a condition stipulating that the factory should be located 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar. But, the then UPA led Ministry of Environment and Forests gave environmental clearance without the EIA and in 1996 TNPCB issued the plant license to operate ignoring the fact that the plant was just 14 Km away from the Gulf of Mannar.

More than 250,000 people live within 7 Km of this plant. Sterlite employs some 4,000 people. But many in the region believe that the plant is causing more harm than good on the local economy, farmers, and fishermen.

The curious case of Gas Leaks

The workers of Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s sub-station located across the Sterlite factory complained of headache, coughing and choking due to smoke emanating from the plant, a year after the establishment in 1997. The workers of nearby factories started to fall ill frequently.

The episode reoccurred in 1999 again this time with severe implication when workers of the All India Radio station complained of chest pain and were hospitalised.

In 2001, Tuticorin residents complained to TNPCB about Sterlite releasing of toxic wastewater with rainwater.

Following this a US advocacy group the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide in 2010 took a soil sample from a farmer’s land some 10 Km away from the Sterlite plant, the report suggested that the soil contained arsenic levels ten times that considered safe in Britain, as well as high quantities of toxins such as cadmium. The same year a boy from Bihar lost his eyes after exposure to acid, no further details were found pertaining to the case, even the media houses which reported the cases did it vaguely.

On March 23, 2013, Thoothukudi town experienced a massive gas leak with people reporting suffocation, coughing, eye irritation, miscarriages and severe discomfort.

Report from the Medical College

In 2008, a study titled “Health Status and Epidemiological Study Around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, Thoothukudi.” Was published but never made public by the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College. The report suggested that the women in the area had more menstrual disorders, like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea. General body pain was widely reported in the area closer to the factory and more people suffered from Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) disorder near the factory.

The report concluded that the area had far greater share of respiratory diseases than in the entire state. The report said, “The increased prevalence rate of asthma and respiratory infections are due to the air pollution caused by industries and automobiles in the area.”

The findings said that the Iron content in the groundwater in Kumareddiapuram and Therku Veerapandiapuram, where the protests took place, were 17 and 20 times higher than permissible levels prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards for drinking water. The study mentioned that the chronic exposure to iron through drinking water could result in chronic fatigue, joint pain, and abdominal pain.

At the time of the study (2006 and 2007), Sterlite had been operating at a far lower production capacity of between 70,000 and 170,000 tonnes of copper anode per annum (TPA). “Since 2007, Sterlite has been operating a 400,000 tpa smelter, nearly six times larger than what it began with year1996.”

The TNPCB’s 2018 Data Confirmed Groundwater Pollution Around Sterlite Factory
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Thoothukudi district administration collected 15 groundwater samples (7 locations within Sterlite Copper premises and 8 from nearby villages) which reveal that all water sources are polluted and in violation of the Bureau of Indian Standards norms for one or more drinking water parameters. Levels of the neurotoxin heavy metal lead, which is particularly toxic to children, were found to be between 4 and 55 times higher than levels considered safe for drinking water.

The presence of the Elevated levels of Total Hardness when seen along with sulphate, fluoride and calcium indicate the possibility of Sterlite as the source of pollution. Phospho Gypsum – calcium sulphate dihydrate – is a by-product of phosphoric acid production that is generated in large quantities. Sterlite’s phosphogypsum dump is visible even in satellite images as a white smudge on a brown landscape. Phosphogypsum if stored improperly can lead to contamination of groundwater with fluoride, calcium, and sulphates, and contribute to high hardness levels in water. While Fluoride causes dental, bone and joint damage in humans and cattle.

If Sterlite is not the villain, then who?

According to the reports that Sterlite has presented, the TNPCB groundwater data – a total of 32 results from 16 locations inside and outside the factory, one each for 2016 and 2017 to claim that there is no evidence of groundwater pollution in the court. But the results from 32 locations say a different story.

In all the 31 out of 32 results the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) are in violation of acceptable standards. The Sulphate levels stand violated in all 32 results while 30 results are in violation of the more relaxed permissible levels.

Fluoride levels are in violation of acceptable standards in 30 results; 6 results are above the permissible levels. Calcium levels are in violation of acceptable standards in all 32 results; 31 results are above the permissible levels. Magnesium levels are in violation of acceptable standards in all 32 results; 31 results are above the permissible levels. Iron levels are in violation of acceptable and permissible standards in 28 out of 32 results. Only four results were within acceptable levels.


Source is Facebook account of Environmental right activist Nitiyanand Jayaram- where the data was shared and the report of the Tirunelveli Medical College.

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