Toxic waste kept for safe disposal in Bharuch catches fire

By Ravleen Kaur
Published: Wednesday 30 April 2008

Down to Earth  
Burning hazardous waste at the BEIL - Drum flying out of the fire  
Down to Earth  
Burning hazardous waste at the BEIL - Part 1  
Down to Earth  
Burning hazardous waste at the BEIL - Part 2  
Down to Earth  
Burning hazardous waste at the BEIL - Part 6  
Down to Earth  
Exclusive footage Watch fire videos at  
a fire at a facility especially set up to safely store and dispose of hazardous waste at Ankleshwar in Bharuch district of Gujarat has revealed how callously dangerous waste is managed in the country. In what could have been an industrial disaster worse than the Bhopal gas tragedy, 250 tonnes of hazardous chemicals and oil kept in barrels at Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Limited (beil)--of which pesticide giant United Phosphorus is a major equity shareholder--went up in smoke on the evening of April 3. The godown had stored over 12,800 tonnes of hazardous chemical solvents and waste oil, which far exceed the capacity of its incinerator."Had it not been for the change in wind direction within 10 minutes of the fire, it could have spread to and destroyed all the nearby factories in the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (gidc) and villages," says Manoj Kotadia, manager, fire and safety, Disaster Prevention and Management Centre, Ankleshwar.

The fire at beil was brought under control within 24 hours but people in surrounding villages are still reeling from the effects of toxic gases a burning sensation in eyes and nose, difficulty in breathing and in some cases, as Down To Earth saw, rashes and fever. The cause of the fire is not known but preliminary investigation by the central and state pollution control boards and the local administration has exposed gross violations of environmental and safety norms at the treatment, storage and disposal facility (tsdf), which has also bid to incinerate the hazardous waste lying at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal--a lucrative contract of over a million dollars. As Down To Earth went to press, it was reported that the Industrial Health and Safety Department had registered a case against beil under the Gujarat Factories Act, 1948, for making seven sheds for storing hazardous waste when it had permission for only two. It was the seventh shed that caught fire. Inquiries into the lapses of the extremely hazardous facility are on.

Dark dusk Black smoke at one of the sheds where the barrels are stored was first noticed at 5.30 p.m. "My office people observed the smoke and informed me," said P N Parmeshwaran, vice-president, environment, beil. However, the Disaster Prevention and Management Centre, just 2 km away, was informed only by 6 p.m. People in Jitali village, about a kilometre from beil, saw barrels flying in the air. But the company's alarm at the panchayat building failed to ring. Later, the villagers found out that wire connections had not been made.

"Soon it was dark, the fumes were noxious and for a long time it was difficult to breathe," said Nilesh Kumar Patel of Jitali as he showed Down To Earth the footage of the blaze on his cell phone. Jitali was one of the three villages put on high alert; people were told to evacuate. The other two villages are Sarangpur and Dhadhaal Inam. Huge chunks of ashy waste fell all around. "Stone-like things fell on my roof. In the morning they were still stinking and oozing fumes," said Momina Shoib Kazi of Jitali. The impact was worst in Jitali because it was in the wind's direction.

"High wind velocity and a change in the direction (towards empty fields) of the wind from west to east prevented a big disaster.Wind velocity of over 20 km per hour did not let the smoke settle, otherwise the barrels lying all over the place would have caught fire and it would also have been difficult for us to wade through the smoke," said Kotadia.

Children at Dhadhaal Inam, a kilometre west of the facility, had just come out of the madrasa when they heard explosions. They ran in the direction of the blasts and ended up with headache and a burning sensation in the nose and throat. Asif Iqbal Panchbaya, 10, has got rashes and high fever. "I took him to Bharuch for treatment but his condition has worsened," said his father Iqbal Panchbaya. The Primary Health Centre sent squads to the villages the same night. It says the fire affected 89 people.

Shocking irregularities
To understand the effects of pollution one needs to know the kind of toxins released in the air. But beil officials could not explain the nature of the waste burnt. "It was a kind of tarry waste or a solvent-based waste of high calorific value. We are trying to ascertain what exactly it was," said Parmeshwaran. The Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, however, lay down that all tsdfs have to keep a record of the kind of waste received and check the waste before accepting it for treatment.

Down to Earth
Left in haze Nature of waste unknown
"Thirty-seven kinds of waste are stored at a landfill site. Under the hazardous wastes rules a tsdf has to provide a monthly report to the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (gpcb) of how much waste it received, its classification, how much was stored and how much incinerated. The gpcb should reveal these reports. The company is at fault, but so is the pollution board for improper monitoring," says Yogesh Pandya, managing trustee of Safety, Health and Environment Association, a Bharuch ngo.

On the second day after the fire, gpcb installed machines at Jitali, beil and at Aventis' factory to monitor the air quality. It also told Down To Earth that parameters were by and large under control. But gpcb did not collect samples for dioxins, furans and volatile organic compounds, which would indicate the toxicity of the air. "No lab in India is equipped to test dioxins and furans, so what can we do?" said R G Shah, environment engineer, gpcb. Asked about heavy metals, Shah said samples were sent to the Netel India labs in Mumbai on April 4. When Down To Earth checked with the company, samples had not been received till the evening of April 8.

Since nobody knows what was burnt--as happened in the Bhopal gas tragedy--it is difficult to monitor contaminants or check for toxicity. While incinerators burn waste at very high temperatures to eliminate toxins, the fire burnt the hazardous waste at a much lower temperature. This is bound to release high levels of contaminants, which will settle on land and water.

Even the quantity of waste stored at beil raised eyebrows. According to the records it submitted to gpcb, 12,825 tonnes of oil was lying in its compound--though it cannot treat more than 50 tonnes a day. The hazardous wastes rules state an industrial unit cannot store waste in its compound for more than 90 days. In May 2007, M S H Sheikh, director of Surat-based ngo Brackish Water Research Centre, had written to gpcb about the dangers of facilities storing hazardous waste for long. But no action was reportedly taken.

beil charges factories Rs 15 per kg of hazardous waste for incineration and the money is taken in advance. That means it collected over Rs 19 crore for 12,825 tonnes of waste oil but did not treat it. Activists also point out that the fire saved the company Rs 37.50 lakh, the cost of treating 250 tonnes of waste.

What caused fire?
beil officials, police, district administration and even gpcb are tight-lipped about the cause. "One of the barrels might have gone in unchecked and some reaction could have caused the explosion. However, we cannot say anything till proper investigation is done," said Ashok Panjwani, director, beil.

The three-member committee constituted by the district collector, who is also the head of the District Crisis Group, submitted its report on April 9. "We have been unable to find out the cause of the fire but most probably it was due to a pyrophoric reaction between steel drums and stored waste," Harshad Patel, sub-divisional magistrate, Ankleshwar, told Down To Earth. The report noted many safety lapses at beil no sensor to detect gas leakage; dangerous chemicals not identified and not kept in a separate area; very few fire-fighting equipment, Patel said. "We have proposed strong action against beil under the Indian Factories Act and under environmental laws. The collector has to give directions," he added.

"It is beyond our power to lodge an fir against them. But we will take action under environment laws. It is obviously a case of negligence and the fire is human-induced. We will act when the actual reason is ascertained," said Sanjiv Tyagi, member secretary, gpcb.

Safety, what's that?
A visit to the accident site brought more shocks. Not a single fire hydrant of the company was visible. "It took long to douse the fire because the approach road was congested and the smoke dense," said Kotadia. A wall in the rear of the compound had to be broken to make way for fire tenders. According to Ibrahim Patel, a medical practitioner in Jitali, the situation could have been tragic had workers been trapped inside. About 40 labourers work at the site. "There is no emergency exit in the high compound wall," he said.

"I came here early morning after the fire and saw people covering the oil with mud. All that will seep into the groundwater. How can they run their business in the name of safe disposal?" asks Sheikh. Workers also complain they do not get safety masks and often feel dizzy.

At this facility where extremely toxic waste is stockpiled, instead of increased monitoring and increased safety conditions, the reverse seems to be the case. Clearly, the lessons of the Bhopal tragedy have not been learnt.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.