Bhopal disaster waste haunts MP

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A month after talks with a German company to dispose the waste from the disaster site broke down, the state government is in a quandary to meet the Supreme Court decided deadline, reports Prakhar Jain

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

The issue of disposing 350 tonnes of toxic waste from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal has come back to square one after the German agency appointed to safely dispose of the waste pulled out of the contract in September. Earlier this year the Supreme Court had observed that the waste’s “very existence is hazardous to health,” and had ordered for its disposal by December 2012.

he waste in question was collected by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) in 2005 from the Bhopal gas disaster site and has been stored securely in the premises of Union Carbide Limited. It mostly consists of contaminated soil and pesticide residues.

Left with no alternative, the oversight committee, which is looking after the disposal of the waste, met on 18 September and has decided to explore all options, including the option of sending it to any of the 27 incinerators, available in the country. But with the deadline approaching, there are indications that the only incinerator in the state at Pithampur in Dhar district, could be the reciever.

Commissioned in October 2009, the incinerator was set up under a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model between the Central government, the state government and Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited. Costing Rs 36 crore, the state and the Centre were to pay Rs 2 crores each for the incinerator while the rest was to be invested by Ramky and raised through bank loans. Despite the Centre approving its share, the state government is reluctant to release its share to Ramky and has even refused to sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project. Since then, the plant has hardly been operational because of its failure to comply with the environmental norms.

People familiar with the process say that the MP government fears becoming a stakeholder in the project as it might attract opposition from people and activists in the state. Babulal Gaur, the minister-in-charge for the Bhopal Gas Relief and Rehabilitation Department, said that because of public protest by people living in the nearby Tarpura village, the waste can’t be burnt at Pithampur. “We have told the government of India that you can take it anywhere outside of MP,” he says. Gaur even expressed the fear that the incinerator might pollute the Yashwant Sagar dam in the vicinity, which provides drinking water to the city of Indore.

Other states have also been resisting the transfer of waste to their incinerators because of public protests. Proposals to dispose the waste initially at Ankleshwar in Gujarat and later at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) facility near Nagpur and at a private incinerator in Taloja near Navi Mumbai were stonewalled by the respective state governments on some pretext or the other fearing the liability that might arise subsequently. One of the arguments they’ve been stressing on is why should the waste be transferred to another state when there is an incinerator available in MP.

Caught in a cleft stick and with time running out for the December deadline, the CPCB and MPPCB have asked for a trial run at the Pithampur incinerator. This is to check its compliance with environmental norms. Interestingly, earlier trial runs at the facility, carried out on the orders of the Supreme Court, had showed the incinirator failing pollution control norms by a huge margin. The emissions are also carcinogenic. (See box for emission levels)

Parameters Prescribed Standard Result of sample I, April Result of sample II, April Result of sample I, June Result of sample II, June
Dioxins and Furans 0.1 (ngTEQ/Nm3)

9.19

26.72

4.13

6.8

Heavy metals 0.5 (mg/Nm3)

3.53

3.83

0.92

0.59

RK Jain, Member Secretary of the MPPCB, says, “We have received instructions from the CPCB that they (Madhya Pradesh Waste Management Project) should be allowed to collect waste. We are giving them permission to collect waste and as soon we receive any information from CPCB to start a trial run, we comply.”

Activists, however, feel that the government has got its priorities wrong. “The 350 tonnes of waste in not doing any harm as it is stored securely; but the toxins in the soil are spreading fast. That needs to be contained first,” says Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Information and Action Group. She alleges that the Pithampur incinerator is illegal as it doesn’t comply with the CPCB guidelines and the government should, instead of focussing on just 5 percent of the waste, do a comprehensive analysis of the technology for remediation.

Karuna Nundy, the lawyer representing the activists in the Supreme Court says, “There is anywhere between 8,000 to 24,000 MT of contaminated waste in the ground. By no stretch they would be able to get rid of it before December. But at least they should follow the intention of the court and at the very least should do a detailed examination of the extent of the waste, the spread of the waste, the health damage it has caused and a detailed plan on how to get rid of the entire thing.”

It is a pity that despite several studies establishing heavy contamination of soil soil and water in and around the disaster site, the government hasn’t been able to chalk out a plan to remediate it. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report published in 2010, had suggested deploying of “competent professional contractors for detailed engineering, and execution of various remedial measures recommended by NEERI”. The Group of Ministers on the issue and the courts have said again and again that though the issue of who is to pay for the disposal of waste and remediation is yet to be decided, it should not hold up the remediation process as it concerns the health of the people.

When asked about the remediation plan, minister Babulal Gaur says, “Let us get done with this 350 tonnes first.”

Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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