The chlorine bomb

An used chlor-alkali plant is slipped through lax Indian laws on the import of hazardous technology

By Rahul Shrivastava
Published: Monday 15 May 1995

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)THE MEF has launched a probe into the granting of environmental clearance to United Phosphorus, an agrochemical company, to import a used chlor-alkali plant. The factory will manufacture chlorine-based pesticides in the chemical industry belt of Vapi in Gujarat. The company imported the plant from Norske Skogindustrier, Norway's largest pulp and paper company, taking advantage of lax Indian laws governing the import of hazardous technology.

According to sources in the ministry, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board granted the clearance despite being aware that the plant, operated by A S Tofte Industrier, a Norske subsidiary, was closed in 1992 following vehement protests by environmental groups and governmental stipulations against the use of chlorine-based bleaching. The export of the used plant was cleared by the ministry of trade, Oslo, and brokered through Perry Process Equipment of UK. Shipped to Bombay in September 1994, the plant is expected to commence production of chlorine-based pesticides from September this year.

The move is in stark contradiction to the tall claims made by the MEF last year that hazardous chemical plants would be banned in the highly-polluted Vapi industrial area. Ironically, news of the import came in the wake of a Gujarat High Court order to phase out hazardous industries in the region.

The import of the plant reveals that through technology transfer, successful environment protection efforts in one country can result in negative consequences for developing countries. It also hits at the weak underbelly of transhipment laws, which permit exports from countries that already follow a policy against transfering objectionable technology.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is maintaining a studied silence. Speaking to Down To Earth, CPCB chairman Dilip Biswas said, "In India, chlorinated hydrocarbon plants are not banned, although DDT and other pesticides which involve chlorine are banned for agricultural use."

Kenny Bruno, head of the International Toxic Trade Project, Greenpeace, says, "The imported plant in Norway's Hurum Royken community with an installed capacity of 20,000 tonnes annually of chlorine was closed in 1992 after 3 years of intense protests, simply because organochlorines as a group tend to be toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative."

Chlorine bleaching involves generation and disposal of toxic organochlorine chemicals, including dioxin. Many extremely hazardous chemicals like Phosphamidon (PMN), Dichlorvos (DDV), and Paraquat (PQT) can also be generated in the process.

Says Bruno, "Endosulfan and Dichlorvos are listed as priority hazardous substances, targeted for elimination by the North Sea Declaration to which Norway is a signatory. This is primarily because these chemicals have the potential for long range transport and entrance into the food chain. According to estimates, Endosulfan is the number 1 cause of pesticide poisoning affecting the immune system. Dichlorvos is a chlorinated organophosphorus, associated with brain cancer and leukaemia in children and adult males."

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