NEERI, which is seeking environmental clearance for Bhadbut project in Gujarat, has been under fire for its poor track record

AGM2006.5-1 By Anupama Vijayakumar*

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which is a research institute created and funded by Government of India, is under criticism from environmentalists for giving clean chit to the proposed Rs 4,000 crore project for building a weir on river Narmada’s month, next to the Gulf of Khambhat. Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), has said that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report prepared by NEERI “is in line with the poor track record of NEERI on EIA of river valley projects” (click HERE to read counterview.org report). He adds, “NEERI’s EIA of 1000 MW Karcham Wangtoo project, on Sutlej river in Himachal Pradesh, was critiqued by SANDRP in 2003. It seems from a review of the Bhadbhut barrage EIA, that a decade later, there is no improvement in NEERI’s performance.”

An examination into NEERI’s track record suggests that NEERI has, in several cases, favoured the established interests instead of taking the side of the people affected by environmental destruction. The NEERI’s EIA report on Bhadbhut is just one example, in which it has neglected the plight of the fishermen, going so far as to suggest that as most of them are poor and do not own boat, hence they will not suffer much on account of the project. There have been several cases the past, which suggest that NEERI has taken a comprising position vis-a-vis powers-that-be.

Lavasa project: For Maharashtra’s Lavasa project site, NEERI’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) suggested the presence of heavy metals in high concentrations in the area’s soil. Yet, NEERI refused to assess the impact of such contamination on the environment, including water sources. Lavasa had obtained environmental clearance from the Maharashtra government on the basis of this report.  The Union environment ministry, after a visit to the site, noted that the EIA report “was not adequate for assessing the project of this magnitude located in the eco-sensitive Western Ghats”. It pointed to inadequacies in the soil and water contamination reports in the NEERI report.

This made the Lavasa Corporation to submit a fresh report prepared by NEERI. In this report it was mentioned that heavy metal content was not to be found anywhere and that in the few places where it was found, it was far lower than the allowed level. When NEERI was summoned by the Ministry of Environment to seek explanations regarding the discrepancies, the scientist involved in conducting Lavasa EIA, D S Ramteke, blamed the developer for not applying for mandatory clearance from the Centre. “It is not our mandate to offer advice in this regard. We are not a regulatory body, and Lavasa should have asked MoEF”.

Some of the discrepancies were the following:

  • Iron concentration in soil report was 24.7% in the 2004 EIA; it was 3% in the 2011 EIA
  • The pH value of surface water is above 7 (alkaline) in all samples in the 2011 report though the soil samples are shown acidic in the same report
  • Cadmium concentration in the soil is 93 mg/kg in the 2004 report; this figure is 44mg/kg in the 2011 report
  • Chromium level in soil was 743 mg/kg in the 2004 report; this figure is 147 mg/kg in the 2011 report
  • Cobalt concentration in soil is 5,006 mg/kg in the 2004 report; the 2011 report says it is 1,153 mg/kg

Commonwealth Games Village project: The Commonwealth Games Village was proposed to be constructed near the Akshardham temple complex. Several non-government organisations opposed the plan on the ground that it would damage the ecology of river Yamuna and that it would affect the livelihood of the vegetable farming communities around the area. In 1999 and 2005, NEERI had warned against construction activities on the river bed of the Yamuna against construction plans formulated by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). However, in 2008, NEERI changed its position and stated that due to recent constructions around the Yamuna such as the Akshardham temple and an embankment, the river bed had been reshaped and that the games village would not affect it. The matter went to the court of law. The Delhi High Court made following observations on NEERI:

  • “From an institution of this repute, it was not expected that report of this kind would be submitted”
  • “The Reports of the NEERI do not paint this body in bright colours. Rather, they show how it has changed colours and has not bothered to contradict itself”.
  • “As would be borne out from the above neither NEERI nor Ministry of Environment and Forest nor DDA can be said to have acted fairly and objectively. Their hands appear to be tainted”.
  • “The issues involved are of great significance and importance and they require dispassionate, honest and thorough examination by experts of eminence and impeccable integrity”.
  • “It is a sad story of men in haste fiddling with major issues and resultantly playing havoc.”

Hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh: Writing in “Journal for Environmental Research and Development” (Jan-March 2012), scholar Parna Mukherjee notes in the article “EIA Scams: Decaying Legal EIA Regime in India”, that in the case of Parbati-3 hydropower project located in Himachal Pradesh, the “premier environmental research organization of India, NEERI was held responsible for making glaring mistakes while preparing the EIA report for seeking environmental clearance”. For example, “the facts and figures mentioned in the report with regard to the availability of water, were for the Jhelum river in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was geographically inaccurate.”

Mukherjee adds, “This is not the only project, where NEERI was held responsible of committing such errors. Even in case of the Karcham Wangtoo hydropower project of Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, NEERI was held responsible for making several errors while redoing the EIA report. This case is also a classic example of public non-participation as only members of the local Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and the project proponent had arbitrarily played dominant role. The locals had expressed their concerns, which was also undermined. Further their right to information was also violated by denying them copies of the said EIA report in Hindi. Despite of all these lapses, the public hearing was scheduled by the authorities of the said pollution control board. The locals also agitated as the project proponent did not obtain any No Objection Certificate from the local Gram Shabha, before the public hearing took place.”

Assessment of hazardous waste in Bhopal: The NEERI report on assessment and remediation of hazardous waste contaminated areas in an around UCIL in Bhopal certifies that contamination of soil and groundwater at Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) premises has nothing to do with the 1984 MIC gas tragedy in which an estimated 8,000 people died and nearly five lakh were affected. During the night of December 2-3, 1984, a storage tank containing methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked gas into the densely populated city of Bhopal, which led to the worst industrial accidents in history.

About two decades after the tragedy, NEERI was asked to carry out an investigation into the contamination of soil and groundwater in the region surrounding the site.  A technical review was carried out by representatives of Bhopal survivors’ organizations of the NEERI report titled ‘Assessment and Remediation of Hazardous Waste Contaminated Areas in and around M/s Union Carbide India Ltd., Bhopal’. Authored by Dr Stuart Gray, Jarlath Hynes, Joe Jackson, Dr Jurgen Porst, the review of the NEERI report said there were a “number of key deficiencies” in the site investigations and methodologies used. The review underlines, “Critical results are misinterpreted, or missing, and a number of the conclusions reached, within the reports, are not supported by the evidence presented. The scarcity of groundwater sampling, the absence of detailed investigation of the Solar Evaporation Ponds, false assumptions regarding groundwater flow direction, and the identified permeable nature of the black cotton soil all suggest that NEERI’s conclusion that groundwater has not been contaminated from Union Carbide factory sources cannot be supported.”

The review notes, “NEERI conducted a limited sampling campaign that was compromised and did not present analytical results for key contaminants of concern. Despite acknowledging the contamination found by previous investigations, NEERI did not follow-up these leads. Where groundwater contamination was detected, no explanation or theories were offered as to the source of this contamination. Analysis of the geophysical data provided show that NEERI’s attempt to quantify the soils requiring remediation based purely on the estimated fill depth is overly simplistic. At this time we still do not know how many aquifers there are, the groundwater flow direction in each, how they are recharged, and where they outcrop.”

Air pollution study for Mumbai, Delhi: In yet another case, a NEERI report, carried out for the Central Pollution Control Board, instead of rating vehicles of being the worst polluters in Delhi and Mumbai, pinned down liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as the biggest source of fine pollutants, which cause diseases like lung cancer. Experts have contested the study, saying the findings are unsubstantiated and scientifically untenable. The study was to set the basis for the post-2010 emissions standards for vehicles and fuels. The CPCB had asked NEERI, Nagpur, among others, to analyse the load of major air pollutants like PM10 and PM2.5 (particulate matters less than 10 and 2.5 micrometres), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

The NEERI study analysed sources of PM2.5 in Delhi and Mumbai, but came under fire for its conclusions. Though the fine pollutants are known to cause diseases like lung cancer and are mostly emitted by vehicles, the NEERI’s study claims LPG combustion is the biggest contributor to PM2.5 load in Delhi’s air; it contributes 61 per cent in industrial areas, 49 per cent in residential areas and 41 per cent along roadside. Sarath Guttikunda, developer of SIM-air, an air quality monitoring tool used at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, questioned the figures. “Fine particulates are not emitted directly from LPG combustion. Besides, how can the results be logically possible given the number of diesel-fuelled trucks that pass through the city every day, the use of gensets and the number of industries in the region”, he said. “CPCB studies in Chennai, Bengaluru, Kanpur and Pune show vehicular exhaust as the biggest contributor of PM2.5 pollutants.”

The environmental portal “Down to Earth” commented, “Apart from being dubious, NEERI’s report was also incomplete.” It quotes Rakesh Kumar, head of NEERI Mumbai to say, “We pulled back the findings on PM2.5 in Mumbai as they were erratic as it was based on limited samples”. Prashant Gargava, scientist at CPCB, said the conclusions for PM2.5 in the final report were “preliminary” and further research should be done to ascertain the contribution of point sources. Meanwhile, the portal noted how the industry had already “turned the NEERI study to its own advantage”. It said, “At two recent public seminars, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers and the Indian Oil Corporation Limited cited NEERI’s findings to establish that vehicles are not major contributors of pollution and that diesel vehicles pollute even less. Several studies have shown that diesel cars emit 2.5 times more particulate matter than petrol cars.”

Sterlite Industries project in Tamil Nadu: In October 1998, the Madras High Court asked Nagpur-based NEERI to assess Sterlite’s environmental performance. The NEERI report was damning. It found evidence of illegal licences, production beyond permitted capacity, hazardous waste violations, discharge of untreated wastewater, groundwater pollution, citing violations and greenbelt inadequacies. In an interim judgement in November 1998, the High Court issued a closure order. However, within months, NEERI submitted its second report in February 1999, and made an about turn.

The revised NEERI report concluded that “(Sterlite) has overhauled and serviced their (effluent treatment plant) system enabling them to bring down the levels of arsenic, selenium and lead in the treated wastewater to conform to the standards laid down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)”. This was despite NEERI’s own data revealing that treated wastewater samples contained arsenic, selenium, chromium and lead. In a telling turn of events, data obtained under the Right to Information Act revealed that after its November 1998 report, NEERI received nine consultancies totaling Rs. 1.22 crore from Sterlite.

*With the Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad

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