A token clean-up won’t detox Bhopal

Mound of death The site of the toxic waste landfill in Bhopal
Photos: Soumik Mukherjee

THE CENTRE has finally decided to dispose of 350 metric tonnes of toxic waste from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal to Hamburg, Germany. The waste will be flown there to be incinerated by the German Academy for International Cooperation (GIZ), at a hefty fee of Rs 25 crore.

However, the 350 MT is not the real waste in question – because it is safely packed, stored and locked away in the factory premises, far from human contact. “There is nothing to prove that this waste had anything to do with the gas leak of 1984; it’s mostly just pesticides,” says Hans H Dube, Regional Director, South Asia, GIZ International Services.

The real threat now are the landfills, which were part of the 21 unlined pits created in 1969, and the solar evaporation pond, built in 1977, for dumping of hazardous wastes. Activists and local people estimate the presence of 25,000 MT-50,000 MT of uncontained toxic waste, which has been responsible for the soil and groundwater contamination in the neighbourhood for over four decades. Satinath Sarangi, a Bhopal-based activist, says that approximately 40,000 people have been exposed to contaminated water, of which 40-60 percent are already victims of the disastrous gas leak from the factory in 1984.

TR Chouhan, 57, former operator of the Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) plant, remembers rolling down about 20-odd 200-litre drums filled with toxic waste and effluents from the MIC and Napthol plant in 1976, and pouring them into locally created ponds. He testified against the Union Carbide and Warren Anderson in a US Court, listing the chemicals dumped between 1969 and 1984. The chemicals included carbaryl, adicarb, chloroform, mercury, napthalin, chemical waste, tar and MIC.

At the factory site, close to the landfills, a peculiar smell lingers in the air. The red-eyed security guard-cum-guide, RB Mishra, 56, a gas leak victim himself, can’t smell it anymore. Stopping where the smell hits us, he asks, “Apko kuch smell aa rahi hai? Yeh hai gas ki khushboo,” (Can you smell something odd? This is the smell of gas). Mishra and the 30-odd guards living in the factory premises are now used to the noxious stench coming from the landfill.

In nearby Atal Ayub Nagar, Wahidi Bi, 34, is also used to the smell. “These are the new houses that have been occupied just last year,” she says, pointing to the wooden shanties along the factory wall. She lives in one of them. The residents don’t have access to water (which comes from the Kolhar dam) and have to fetch it from older residential colonies adjacent to the factory premises. Wahidi’s neighbour, 50-year-old Saidi Bi, who earlier lived in the adjoining Nawab Colony, says: “We used to get rashes after bathing in the water that was supplied in Nawab Colony.” She insists that the water they get now is safe. “Only wild grass grows here, whenever we try to grow vegetables, they die,” adds a neighbour.

Activists and local people estimate the presence of 25,000 to 50,000 metric tonnes of uncontained toxic waste in soil, water

Outside the factory premises stands what was once the solar evaporation pond. Union Carbide’s failed attempt to cover up by filling the pond with layers of soil separated by plastic lining is visible. Every monsoon, this toxic concoction seeps deeper into the ground. Despite the 2005 Supreme Court order to the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) to supply clean drinking water, the progress has been slow. After the apex court’s latest 3 May order to comply within three months, one can see water pipelines being laid around Blue Moon Colony, which is less than 100 metres from the solar evaporation pond suppressing toxic waste.

Several studies have revealed the levels of toxic contamination in groundwater and soil. For example, 1,3-dichlorobenzene, a compound known to be carcinogenic, has been found in the soil and groundwater of Atal Ayub Nagar, New Arif Nagar, Blue Moon Colony, Nawab Colony, Sundar Nagar, Prem Nagar, Gareeb Nagar, Preet Nagar, Shiv Nagar. These studies, spanning over a decade, were conducted by Greenpeace (1999), the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE-2009) and the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) in 2005. Similarly, carbaryl (sevin), mercury, napthalene and lead, which are known to have serious health effects, have been detected in water samples.

Chingari Trust, an NGO, which set up a rehabilitation centre for children born with deformities because of the gas leak, sees a growing number of children with deformities due to consumption of contaminated groundwater. Similarly, the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, set up specifically to treat the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, has registered over 6,000 persons exposed to contaminated groundwater for medical care.

Ground zero (left) Wahidi Bi in her wooden shack; (right) The abandoned plant

The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, a hospital set up on the orders of the Supreme Court to serve the gas tragedy victims free of cost, doesn’t recognise them as affected parties. Thus, they can’t avail of the free treatment. The Pani Peedit (water-affected victims) aren’t entitled to compensation by the Madhya Pradesh government either. They weren’t even considered in the Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) 1989 settlement, later revised in 1990 even though the UCCwas aware of the contamination.

A telex from Union Carbide India Limited to UCC in 1982 informs that “continued leakage from evaporation pond is causing great concern.”

Their own analysis of samples drawn from inside the factory premises in 1989 showed that the “majority of the liquid samples contained napthol and/or sevin in quantities far more than permitted by the ISI for onland disposal.”

In a setback to the gas tragedy victims, a US court held that neither Union Carbide nor its former chairman Warren Anderson were liable for environmental remediation or pollution-related claims at the corporation’s former chemical plant in Bhopal.

Activists, who are against Dow’s sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics, argue that it is an attempt to greenwash Dow’s reputation and make people forget about the Bhopal disaster.

The London Olympics is two weeks away and Dow is still a sponsor. Victims wonder how Dow has the money to sponsor the Olympics, but not enough for compensation. But it was never about Dow’s ability to pay. The real question the Madhya Pradesh government should ask is: while the people of Bhopal continue to suffer is it worth the wait to fix liability.

Ask MPPCB member secretary RK Jain and scientist Avinash Karera about the remaining waste and they point out that it’s not in their purview. “It’s for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation department to decide,” they say. Officials from the relief department were unavailable for comment.

“Expertise and resources aren’t a problem to address the issue,” says Sarangi. “We have submitted remedial action plans. The waste must be excavated and contained and the water should be pumped out, treated and poured back in.” Or, as former UCC operator Chouhan says, if enough water is pumped in then the levels of toxicity could be diluted. “There are ways out but we have to act now,” he adds.

Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 


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