Four years after an oil pipeline leak contaminated the groundwater in North Chennai’s Tondiarpet neighbourhood, those affected by the contamination are on the brink of despair after repeated appeals to authorities hasn’t led to a clean-up.

Tondiarpet is part of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s constituency of RK Nagar.

In 2012, 100-odd families here woke to black sludge coming out of their taps. That was oil that had leaked from one of the pipelines that transport crude from Chennai Port to several refineries located in North Chennai.

Several such pipelines cut through densely populated areas and the leak, one of several reported in past years, contaminated the groundwater that residents draw up with the help of borewells and use for drinking, cooking and bathing.

“Earlier the water from our borewell used to be very sweet,” said R Selvi, 62, who lives on Kummanamman Kovil Street in Tondiarpet. “But now when we use the borewell water, it comes with diesel or petrol. Even without switching on the motor the house is filled with the smell of petrol. We do not know what will happen at any time. It is like sitting on top of a petrol well.”

To make matters worse, the contamination has also affected Selvi’s livelihood. Her family’s main source of income was the rent they received by letting out two sections of their home. “Ever since the water has been contaminated with petrol, the tenants have vacated, and we do not know what to do,” lamented Selvi.

She added that she voted for Jayalalithaa in the Assembly elections held earlier this year. “We thought there would be some solution after she won from here, but till date nothing has happened.”

In a state where political leaders like Jayalalithaa are cult personalities and are rarely questioned, Selvi’s words are indicative of the frustration that has built up among residents of the area.

Unbridled pollution

North Chennai – home to several oil refineries and other heavy industries thanks to its proximity to the Chennai Port – is one of the most polluted areas in the state capital.

The air here is foggy and black and has high levels not just of PM 2.5, minute particulate matter that can get embedded deep inside the lungs causing damage over the long term, but of heavy metals such as manganese, led and arsenic, all of which are hazardous to health.

And then there’s water pollution.

The refineries here include the government-owned Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited and Indian Oil Corporation. These are crucial for meeting the petrol, diesel, LPG and aviation turbine fuel requirements of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and also supply to neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Crude oil brought to Chennai Port via petroleum tankers are transported through pipelines to these refinery units.

However, these pipelines are over a decade old, and leaks are common. For instance, in September 2012, two leaks each were reported from the Bharat Petroleum and Indian Oil pipelines. In February 2013, one leak was reported from the Chennai Petroleum pipeline. Then again, in April and June of that year, two more leaks were found at two different places in the Indian Oil pipeline.

The Bharat Petroleum leak

When the residents of Tondiarpet first saw black liquid gushing out of their taps in 2012, they were astonished.

“We first thought that it was sewage water but later we found that it was crude oil,” said Uma Chandran, a resident of the area. “Oil company officials came immediately and set right the leak. But the damage had been done. We thought that the problem was over but only later did we realise that the oil had seeped into our groundwater.”

After receiving complaints, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board tested the groundwater in Tondiarpet. Of 12 borewells surveyed, it found four “highly contaminated borewells” and four “moderately contaminated borewells”.

According to the report, “20%-30% of oil” which “catches fire immediately after ignited” was found in the highly contaminated borewells.

The report listed the extent of the damage and flagged concerns that the residents were at risk of contracting cancer and other diseases.

It said: “…deep soil in the area and ground water table might be highly contaminated… after removing the...oil from the water tank, remaining water is being used for bathing, washing and even for cooking which may become threats to the ill effects of skin and cancerous diseases.”

The Board issued show-cause notices to the oil companies present in the area. After much dithering, Bharat Petroleum admitted that the leak that contaminated the water happened from its pipeline.

In 2013, Tondiarpet residents also moved the South Zone Green Tribunal, which ordered the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to file a full report on groundwater contamination in the area. The Board requested the help of IIT-Madras to conduct the tests.

The IIT-Madras report confirmed that the water in the area had been contaminated by oil, and called for an immediate clean-up.

Slow progress

It’s been three years since then.

Bharat Petroleum told that it would take time to clean up the groundwater.

“We have engaged an American company for doing this,” said Nagarajan, process manager at Bharat Petroleum. “Using state-of-the-art technology we have been clearing the oil in borewells. But this will not change anything immediately. It will take a few years to completely purify the water in this area. Meanwhile we have been providing the people affected by this with sufficient potable water.”

But residents of Tondiarpet dispute this claim. They say that they are spending large amounts of money buying water for their daily needs. “The water that BPCL provides is worthless,” said a resident. “Either they give back to us the sweet potable water that we had earlier or they need to give us due compensation.”

The case still pending before the Green Tribunal but residents say that they have no money to fight the case any longer and want an immediate solution to the issue.