“The river was beautiful many years ago. Now, the waters are murky and sludgy. The companies have caused destruction. The river is gone and with that our lives are gone.”
Chennai: The port town of Ennore made national headlines recently when a massive oil spill occurred off its coast. In the wee hours of January 28, the BW Maple collided into the Dawn Kanchipuram, the latter carrying around 45,000 tons of petroleum products. Though a disaster of the proportions of what happened at the Gulf of Mexico in X was averted, official reports state that about 150 tons of fuel-oil leaked into the Bay of Bengal close to the beaches of Ennore.
But what might seem like a major environmental and public health emergency normally is just another day in the life of the residents of Ennore. The oil spill only brings the perils of rampant and unplanned industrialisation to the fore. The region already houses several coal power plants, cement kilns, oil storage yards and a fertiliser factory. Altogether, these industries discharge toxic waste into the air, land and water.
The two million tons of ash from the three coal power plants poses the biggest threat (relative to other industrial activities in the area) to the ecology of Ennore. Incessant dumping of ash into the Ennore Creek has reduced it to a drain. Petrochemical wastes from Manali industries are also regularly discharged into the Buckingham Canal that drains into the creek.
The degrading environment has taken its toll on people’s health in the are. Reports show that the PM2.5 levels in the region ranged from 105.7 to 141.5 micrograms/m3 (μg/m3) – 1.7- to 2.3-times higher than standards prescribed by the environment ministry. Further, the river and creek water are heavily contaminated with heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium.
Common health problems reported among the residents include upper respiratory tract disorders like asthma and wheezing, skin lesions and rashes, reproductive issues among women, loss of appetite, among others. The government continues to ignore the problems. So far, no health assessment has been conducted nor have relief and mitigation measures been put in place.
Fishermen from the area are upset about the spill but more so over rumours that adviced people against eating fish. Losses have been estimated to run into several lakh rupees within the first week of the spill.
The following are the industries situated around the creek:
- North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) 3×210 MW; 2x 600 MW
- Kamaraj Port Limited (KPL; formerly know as Ennore Port)
- L&T Ship Building Yard
- Chettinad International Coal Terminal
- NTECL’s Vallur Thermal Power Plant 3×500 MW
- HPCL – Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited
- Ennore Thermal Power Plant (Oldest operational power plant in the region) 2 x 60 MW ; 3 x 110 MW
Within a five-kilometre radius
- Manali Industrial Estate
- Coromandel Fertilizer
- Kothari Fertilizer
- Hinduja Foundaries
New proposals for thermal power projects in the region
- 800 MW NCTPS Stage III, on the green belt of the current NCTPS, Ennore
- 1,600 MW Ennore SEZ, on the ash pond of NCTPS
- 1,200 MW North Chennai Power Company, at Katupalli
- 1,030 MW Chennai Power Generation Ltd, Katupalli and Kalanji village
Stories from Ennore
(Relative locations of areas mentioned below)
Dr. S. Killivalavan has been practicing in Kattukuppam since 1984. His is one of the few private medical clinics in the area and is always abuzz with patients. This area is surrounded by Coromandel Fertilisers, Ennore foundries, the thermal power stations and the phosphoric acid plant. The air reeks of sulphur dioxide and ash at times. In the last few years, the Kothari Company has closed down, emissions from companies have been controlled and the heights of chimneystacks have been increased.
While there has been a fall in the number of cases of primary complex (a type of tuberculosis infection), there has been a stark increase in respiratory diseases. “Seventy percent of the cases I see are respiratory diseases. One could claim that the humidity in the area, because it’s so close to the sea, is causing respiratory disease and fungal infection – which also I see a lot – but I can certainly say that the high rate of respiratory disease is because of the air pollution,” he says. “Lots of people have migrated from the area unable to manage medical expenses. How can one explain this?”
Meghala, who lives in Nettukuppam with her grandson
I was born and brought up in this very area. When we grew up, we didn’t have disease. We were healthy and ate good food. Children these days are always sick with cold, cough, phlegm or headaches. I bring my grandson to the hospital at least twice a month for the same reasons but the problem never goes away. My daughter is at home with a baby that is also continuously sick. Each visit to the doctor costs about Rs 400. If there are more children, there will be more visits and it will cost more.
With the medicines and the chemicals in the air, my grandchildren are being poisoned. Earlier the groundwater was good but now it smells because of the effluents let out by the companies. We have to spend more to buy drinking water. It’s difficult to cope with the expenses, but we want the child to get better and have no one but the doctor to turn to. Only if the children are okay I can get on with my work peacefully, no? Otherwise, there’s too much tension.
Reuben and an evening’s game of cricket
According to the World Health Organisation’s Global Plan of Action for Children’s Health and the Environment, “Significant action is required to achieve healthier, safer and cleaner environments in the places where children live, learn, work and play – this is imperative for child health.” The corresponding report, for the period 2010-2015, also recommends that children and adolescents aged 5-17 years should have at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical intensity every day.
The reality in Sivanpadaiveethi is starkly different. Reuben, 19, and his young friends love a game of cricket every evening – but with an increasing number of industries as well as shrinking spaces, they are forced to play on a piece of land that has opened up in the drying river. And to get there, they have to trudge through sludge and other remnants of the river that leaves their bare feet itching.
An hour of cricket is worth the itch, Reuben says, fearing that his parents will keep them from playing if they are made aware of the itching. “If not here, we have to depend on the men to ferry us across on their boats to the bank – that’s the only other place we have to play in. Here, the boys can join us when they please, but going there to play requires a lot of planning,” he says.
With the power plant just behind them, what can be the quality of air these children breathe after a good match? With no space to play and clean air to breathe, the health of an entire generation is being lost to development in Ennore.
Lesions among fishermen that a local hospital can’t heal
Raja, a 40-year old fisherman from the same area, says, “Fishing is our traditional livelihood and I have been going to fish since I was 15. Then the water was nice and clean. Since the companies came, they have been letting effluents into the water.
“When we fish we have to enter the water. Wherever the water touches our skins, we get lesions. Some of the men have rashes that itch all the time – and scratching makes them worse. For some others the skin looks burnt, and for some there’s no hair growth where the water has made contact with the body.”
According to Raja, there is one government hospital in the area with only nurses; the doctor is hardly present. The nurses can only treat fevers. “The centre doesn’t stock medicines for skin infections, so they ask us to go to Stanley Hospital.”
And if Raja goes to Stanley, he loses an entire day’s livelihood. “It’s a waste of time and money. We are therefore forced to go to private doctors in the vicinity.” These doctors are expensive. “If we earn Rs 100, almost half of that will be spent on a visit to the doctor. That’s why most of us don’t visit the doctor till the problem gets out of hand.”
Ravichandran, 58, who used to revere the river
The river was beautiful many years ago. We used to bathe in it and our livelihood depended solely on it. We revered the river. The fish and prawn catch used to be so good that there were not enough people to take them all. Two or three flings of the net and we’d have enough to happily go back home.
Now, the waters are murky and sludgy because of the flinders [small fragments of something] mixed in them. The fish and prawn that hatch here have no air to breathe, so the breeding has gone down. That means our livelihoods are lost. The companies have caused destruction. The river is gone and with that our lives are gone. With the little we know, we run from pillar to post to seek justice. With our livelihoods gone and justice a bleak hope, our health is being affected. We don’t have the time or the money to care for ourselves. At this rate, we wonder, what will happen to our children?
S. Amu, 34, who has started to avoid the water
This is our ground water. Look at how yellow it is. The water leaves behind stains on our vessels that don’t go away. There, can you see them at the bottom? The vessels get eaten away by whatever is in the water.
I can’t remember when the problem started. I must have been very young then. My daughters are almost 20 years old now. An oil-like substance used to form a film on the surface of the water. We know it’s been contaminated with chemicals, all the companies are to blame. We stopped using this water for cooking and drinking purposes long ago. In our village, so many people have yellow teeth because of this water. We are afraid of what will happen if we consume it and are very careful not to.
We don’t have a choice but to use this water to bathe. The metro water supplied by the government is just as bad, but we have to trust someone, and we trust the government over the company. Some of us buy canned water for drinking but that’s expensive and those who can’t, heat the metro water and drink it. We don’t think of how it might affect us in the future. We can take on these companies only if we all get together. But between all our other problems, the possibility of that happening is nil. If only we had strong leaders and representatives who visit us after the elections.
A tragedy already
The oil-spill clean-up efforts at Ennore once again underscore the fundamental disregard towards public and occupational health and safety.
Untrained workers and volunteers with minimal safety gear were seen trying to remove the slick. Crude oil is known to be toxic to humans. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that clean-up workers engaged in the Gulf oil-spill disaster experienced significantly altered blood profiles, liver enzymes and somatic symptoms that increased their risk of developing cancer.
Clean-up crew at Ennore have reported dizziness, fatigue, headaches and nausea, similar to the symptoms reported by the workers engaged in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Till date, no health advisory has been published by the Coast Guard nor the Tamil Nadu government on the precautions to be taken by workers and residents.
Archanaa Seker is a campaigner with Healthy Energy Initiative, which seeks to explore the health impacts of energy choices. Dharmesh Shah is a policy researcher interested in waste, circular economy and climate change.