Locals flag chemical odour from factory near Vedanthangal

A persistent chemical odour permeates the air in a stretch of the Melavalampettai-Nelvoy Road at Sathamai village in Maduranthakam. The only explanation, according to local residents, was the presence of the manufacturing plant of the Sun Pharmaceutical Ltd. They say the odour from the factory is mild on some days but intense on other days.

Residents of Sathamai and Pudupattu villages said after years of living around the factory, they are now accustomed to the odour. “It is more intense at night than during the day,” said K. Kaathavarayan. He pointed out that the odour is strong when it rains.

Lakshmi, a resident of Sathamai, said the smell was stronger during rainy season. Caretaker of a farm, Ms. Lakshmi added that the quality of groundwater had been severely affected in the last decade. She said the farm, which used to be filled with guava and orange trees, now had teak trees on 50% of the land as “the water has gone bad”.

The company’s application for expanding its operations caused uproar among locals and activists, both due to the depletion in quality of groundwater and the factory’s proximity to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2022 had asked Sun Pharma to pay ₹58.2 lakh compensation for causing groundwater pollution. The NGT fined the company ₹10 crore for operating without an environmental clearance between 1994 and 2006. However, the Madras High Court stayed the NGT’s ₹10 crore penalty.

The Sun Pharma’s ‘Environment Management Plan’, a document released in 2019, said as part of odour management, local exhaust ventilation at storage locations were connected to scrubbers, which were used to filter out harmful substances before factory exhaust is released into the environment.

Yuvan Aves, a nature educator who takes schoolchildren on educational trips around the sanctuary, said on some days the smell was strong enough to cause headache to children.

S. Kannathasan, resident of Vellaputhur village near Vedanthangal, said the intensity of the odour varied. “You can’t tell which days the smell will be strong. Maybe on days when they increase production of certain substances,” he said.

An independent study by the Chennai Climate Action Group (CCAG) and the Community Environmental Monitoring in 2020 found tetrachloroethene and toluene, toxic drugs, in a pond downstream of the factory.

Without going into specifics about odour management or waste treatment during rain, Sun Pharma said it operated as per pollution control board standards. “Our plant at Madhuranthakam has a zero liquid discharge system with a state-of-the-art waste treatment facility. We operate and maintain the effluent treatment systems and air pollution control measures as per the directions of the State and Central pollution control boards,” a company spokesperson told the reporters.

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