Too hot to handle

India has tightened guidelines for storage of toxic industrial waste. But is it enough?

Published: Saturday 28 February 2009

Too hot to handle

India has tightened guidelines for storage of toxic industrial waste. But is it enough?

A fire at Ankleshwar forced India to rethink how it handles hazardous waste. Drums carrying dangerous industrial sludge flew amid leaping flames and burst in the air at a waste storage at the industrial complex in Bharuch district of Gujarat on April 3 last year. Ash fell all around. People in nearby villages were told to evacuate; many suffered coughing, headache, nausea and burning sensation in the nose and throat.

It could have turned into a disaster worse than the Bhopal gas tragedy but for the change in the wind direction away from other factories (see 'Bhopal to Bharuch', Down To Earth, April 30, 2008).

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Fire at Ankleshwar exposed careless handling of waste
Photographer:Ravleen Kaur
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The fire burnt 250 tonnes of toxic industrial waste at the treatment, storage and disposal facility or tsdf in Ankleshwar. This waste had been sent there for incineration at 1,100C because it was too dangerous to reuse or dump in a landfill. And burning it under ordinary conditions could release pollutants like cancer-causing dioxins and furans.

Waste oil and sludge--all paid for by industries--were leaking from barrels at Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Ltd (beil), the tsdf that caught fire. Though beil --of which pesticide giant United Phosphorous is a major equity holder--cannot incinerate more than 50 tonnes of waste a day, it had crammed over 12,800 tonnes in sheds with narrow passage in between.

Prompted by the accident, the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) in April 2008 set up a committee under its former adviser R K Garg to stipulate detailed and explicit guidelines for storage of incinerable hazardous waste at captive incinerators and tsdfs, which are landfills with or without incinerators. In November, the board announced new guidelines (see Storage guidelines). Till then tsdfs were not bound by any time limit for storing hazardous incinerable waste, though being reactive and inflammable, the waste is risky to store-- beil and the factory inspector in Ankleshwar believe the April fire occurred due to a reaction between the waste and the steel drum in which it was stored. Only industries were told not to store such waste for more than 90 days on their premises.

The committee decided that a tsdf should not store hazardous waste for more than six months. It noted sampling, analysis and mixing of the right kind of waste before incineration could take three months, but considering the time an incinerator requires for repairs, which is an annual affair, six months' storage time is appropriate.

beil had waste lying there for up to two years, even though the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (gpcb) had allowed it 90 days' storage time.

Industries in India produce hundreds of tonnes of waste every day that cpcb classifies harmful to our health and the environment. It can be toxic, flammable, corrosive, radioactive or reactive. Of this inflammable organic waste produced by industries like pesticide, pharmaceutical and refinery has to be incinerated. These are mostly synthetic chemicals that, scientists say, do not easily break down in the environment and deposit in human bodies through the food chain. They interfere with our biochemistry that affects our intelligence, immunity, behaviour and reproduction. Benzene used in bulk drug factories, for example, is a carcinogen. Exposure to it for a long time can be fatal.

Ten months after the fire--and despite orders to do so--neither gpcb nor the factory inspector of the area nor beil itself knows the nature of the waste burnt and the company it came from.

On July 8, cpcb issued directions to beil regarding safety--like installing smoke and fire detectors, water sprinklers, providing ventilation, labelling drums to identify waste--under the Environment Protection Act 1986. The facility was asked to submit an action plan for incinerating the 12,800 tonnes of waste lying on its premises, and not to accept fresh waste till it had done so.

beil was given three months to act upon the directions. It trimmed the size of some sheds to create a wider passage between them, laid the storage areas with concrete flooring, installed fire hydrants and smoke detectors and labelled the drums. "We have spent over Rs 7 crore on upgrading. Each drum has been painted and labelled as per the categories in hazardous waste rules," said P N Parmeswaran, vice-president (environment) of United Phosphorus.

However, 4,000 tonnes of waste was still lying at the facility in December end. According to cpcb, 7,000 tonnes remained to be treated on October 13. So in more than six months, the company could take care of only 5,800 tonnes. Of this 1,000 tonnes were sent to another tsdf, Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure, in Surat, according to the documents obtained from gpcb under rti. As per beil's stated capacity at least 7,500 tonnes should have been incinerated in six months.

Environmental activists in Anklesh- war are now angry over the Madhya Pradesh High Court's order in Decem- ber allowing beil to incinerate 350 tonnes of toxic waste from the Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) plant in Bhopal. "When they are not able to manage the waste of this industrial area, how can they take care of the waste in the Union Carbide factory?" asked Zia Pathan, a lawyer in Ankleshwar and member of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a non-profit active in Gujarat.

Will beil be nailed? No criminal case is filed against it (see Where is the punishment?). Pollution control boards can act against the beil director under section 15 of the Environment Protection Act in case of loss of health or vegetation, for which the culprit can get jailed for five years. But they have not done so. Proving impact on health and vegetation is not easy. "If people have breathing disorders how can one know it is because of beil?" asked Pathan.

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