Bhopal waste to be disposed of in the sea?

Taking cue from disposal of chemical weapons in 2009, Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee suggests incinerating the waste on a floating platform
Bhopal waste to be disposed of in the sea?

Recent reports in the media suggesting that there is a proposal to incinerate toxic waste lying at Bhopal’s Union Carbide factory at sea has left activists worried and officials puzzled.

In the past three decades, numerous unsuccessful attempts have been made to dispose of the 350 tonnes of waste lying at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Recently, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German agency, withdrew its proposal to airlift the waste to Germany and incinerate it there.

The latest suggestion to dispose of the waste in the sea comes from the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee set up in 2004 to oversee and make recommendations on the healthcare facilities provided to the Bhopal gas disaster victims. The committee on November 8 submitted its recommendations to the Madhya Pradesh government proposing to incinerate the waste off the coast of Odisha in the Bay of Bengal.

 The suggestions are a result of a meeting held between the Madhya Pradesh government and the monitoring committee on September 18—a day after GIZ withdrew its offer.

What the international treaties say

Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter is an agreement to control sea pollution by way of dumping. It covers the deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, and platforms. It does not cover discharges from land-based sources, such as pipes and outfalls, waste incidental to normal operation of vessels, or placement of materials for purposes other than mere disposal, providing such disposal is not contrary to aims of the Convention. It entered into force in 1975.

"Dumping" has been defined as the deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures, as well as the deliberate disposal of these vessels or platforms themselves. Article 4 states that Contracting Parties "shall prohibit the dumping of any wastes or other matter with the exception of those listed in Annexure 1".

The permitted substances are:

1. Dredged material
2. Sewage sludge
3. Fish waste, or material resulting from industrial fish processing operations
4. Vessels and platforms or other man-made structures at sea
5. Inert, inorganic geological material
6. Organic material of natural origin
7. Bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similar unharmful materials
8. CO2 streams from CO2 capture processes

The report states that the incineration may be carried out on a floating platform anchored approximately 20 km off the coast, “preferably in areas where the wind direction is towards sea and not land.”

Purnendu Shukla, member of the monitoring committee, explains that the proposal was drawn up after discussions with the navy and other experts. “We were informed that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the National Defence Academy (NDA) had incinerated chemical weapons in a similar manner in 2009 and it is a tried and tested method.”

Sea contamination feared

V Babu, head of the hazardous waste division at Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), says such a proposal raises many questions regarding the environment and is against the international treaties that India is party to, like the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972, commonly called the London Convention (see box).

“Even ships are not permitted to dump their waste in the sea. If we were to incinerate the waste, that would mean the emissions could reach anywhere and controlling that from spreading is a difficult task,” he says.

He adds that the government is still testing and upgrading the contentious Pithampur facility for incineration of the waste. “Pithampur is the most viable and legally appropriate option for disposal of the waste.” 

CPCB is in charge for proper disposal of the toxic waste lying at the defunct factory for 28 years now. Babu says that the organisation has still not received any official communication regarding such a proposal and has heard of it through the media.

He notes that even if such a proposal is approved it would not come under the purview of the CPCB as international waters fall under the jurisdiction of international organisations.

Dharmesh Shah of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a non-profit, echoes Babu’s concern of the waste causing sea contamination. He adds that burning waste at sea would require expensive equipment.

“Also, you will not just buy the incinerator to burn Bhopal waste, you will use it again to burn other wastes. This will only set a bad precedent as has been seen in other countries.” Given the poor monitoring standards and technical facilities, Shah also questions the advisability of burning the waste at sea.

Neil Tangri, an environmentalist-based in the US and member of the  a network of activists opposing incineration says there is no "perfect" solution to dispose the waste. "Industry repeatedly claims that the best approach to such wastes is incineration. However, incineration of toxic waste releases large quantities of heavy metals, organochlorines (such as dioxins and furans), nanoparticles and other toxic pollutants. Even the best-operated incinerators with the most rigorous monitoring programmes can do no more than capture a portion of these pollutants before they escape out the stack," he explains.

He adds to dispose of the waste bids should be invited from technology pioneers using non-incineration methods. "The actual disposal should be done in a country with the most rigorous environmental monitoring and controls, not India. Of course, it will be far costlier to do this than to simply burn the waste, but the financial burden should be born entirely by Dow, as successor corporation to Union Carbide. If Dow refuses to pay the costs, Indian government should attach Dow properties in the country to assure payment," he says.

He notes the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has a programme dedicated to developing and testing new technologies to dispose of polychlorinated biphenyl and pesticide wastes (such as the Bhopal stockpile). "There are some promising technologies under consideration, such as gas phase chemical reduction and supercritical water oxidation. Unfortunately, the programme has languished for lack of funding, and no new technologies have come to market," he adds.

Meanwhile, Shukla emphasises that the report is “just a suggestion” and the government needs to work out the details and technicalities.

The two-page report of the monitoring committee also suggests four other options, including burial at sea and incineration on land. But Shukla adds the since "there have been so many protests and all states have refused to accept this waste, we have strongly recommended that the waste be incinerated at sea.”

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