Airlifting Union Carbide waste requires amending Indian law, violates Basel Convention
Twenty-eight years after the lethal gas leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the 350 tonnes of toxic waste lying at the defunct factory is likely to be airlifted to Germany for safe disposal. The disposal process, however, will start only after India’s Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules of 2008, which forbid export and import of hazardous waste, are amended.
On June 8, a Group of Ministers, constituted to look into matters related to the industrial disaster and chaired by the home minister, approved a proposal moved by Germany’s development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to incinerate the waste. The contract is yet to be finalised. J S Kamiyotra, member secretary, Central Pollution Control Board, says a work agreement is being drawn up by Madhya Pradesh.
While some activists believe the decision is a delayed step considering the waste has been lying at the factory for almost three decades and has caused extensive contamination, others say the waste should not be sent out of the country as it sets a precedent for hazardous waste trade. But authorities and GIZ say the waste lying in Bhopal is an emotional rather than a technical or legal issue. “All necessary precautions will be taken,” says Kamiyotra.
This is GIZ’s second effort to help India dispose of hazardous waste (see ‘Similar attempt’).
Let the show begin
Disposing of the Bhopal waste has been a long battle. In the past years, three states with waste incineration facilities, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, have failed to meet standards or have refused to do so following public protests.
A year ago, the Indian government approached GIZ for assistance in disposing of the toxic waste. “We conducted a survey and got an approval from our government to go ahead,” says Hans H Dube, senior legal secretary, GIZ. “For a year there was silence from India’s side, but after the Supreme Court order in April this year, the Indian government approached us again,” he adds. The court had hauled up the government in April for not doing anything about the waste and contamination in and around the factory. The next hearing is on July 2. If the court approves the German proposal, it will be presented to the Cabinet; only then will the process of removing the waste can begin.
Assuring that the toxicity of the waste is not a big a threat, Dube says the incinerators in Germany are well-equipped. The methyl isocyanate gas from the 1984 leak is no longer in the soil. It has evaporated into the atmosphere, he explains. “This is both good and bad because it means the waste at present is not as dangerous as it could have been, but the tragedy is that it has released into the atmosphere.” The Indian government is commissioning the disposal and will pay for it. At present, the project is expected to cost Rs 25-Rs 30 crore. India will also have to provide a bank guarantee and security deposit with a premium of about Rs 8 lakh to Rs 12 lakh. GIZ will only manage the project on behalf of the owner, the Madhya Pradesh government. But activists say Dow Chemicals, the owner of Union Carbide, should be held liable for the gas leak and pay for the disposal. Since 2010, the Madhya Pradesh High Court has been hearing a petition regarding liability of Dow Chemicals (see: New evidence favours Bhopal gas victims battling Dow Chemical). The company denies any accountability.
The German agency successfully disposed of 106 tonnes of DDT from Tanzania between 2006 and 2008. In an ongoing project in Nepal, GIZ is disposing of 75 tonnes of expired pesticides.
Time for change
The disposal process will take over a year to complete. It will have a four-phase approach: GIZ will survey and sample the waste for two months; will make a project plan and purchase required material in the next four months; airlift the waste within three months; and incinerate it. At a time 90 tonnes of waste can be airlifted, which will be transferred in UN-approved high density polyethylene drums to ensure safe packaging. “The packing cannot start before January because of extreme weather in Bhopal,” says Dube.
To make the plan work, an amendment to hazardous waste rules is required. But there is an impasse: India is party to the Basel Convention—an international treaty that prohibits export or import of hazardous waste. The convention, however, can allow transportation of hazardous waste if the host country does not have the required technology. Therefore, GIZ says its proposal abides by the convention.
Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch Alliance, network of environmental activists, is against the transboundary movement. “Legislation, both national and international, emphasise the need to deal with waste where it is generated.”
The Indian rules, meanwhile, have undergone four amendments in the past four years. “Each amendment has diluted the rules to legitimise hazardous waste trade,” Krishna adds. But the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers says there is a need for the amendment which will not be a long process and is not violative.
Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group for Information and Action says there is greater possibility of proper disposal in Germany than in India. “The incapability of the authorities is evident from the numerous studies and court orders attempting to dispose of the waste,” she adds. But Krishna says instead of trading waste, Germany should share the waste disposal technology. “All developed nations keep promising to share technology but rarely do so because it is profitable to have monopoly.”