Yesterday once more

Unsafe cleanup of the Carbide factory revives memories of Bhopal's tragedy

Published: Monday 15 August 2005

Toxic waste at the factory pre All through June 2005, people living around the Union Carbide factory site in Bhopal found chemical dust blowing through the air, accompanied by bad odours. The haze came from the factory site where, 21 years after the Bhopal gas leak, state authorities have finally embarked on a cleanup. This cleanup caused a range of problems -- dizziness, burning eyes, nausea, chest pain and stomach ache. For those people in the community who had been around on December 3, 1984, when poisonous gas had leaked from the same factory, it was a frightening reminder of disaster.

Why now? The removal of toxic waste will be done in three phases, the first of which commenced for a week from June 16, 2005. The action has been forced by the Madhya Pradesh (mp) high court, whose orders, given on March 30, 2005, were in response to a public interest litigation (pil) filed on July 18, 2004, by Alok Pratap Singh, former representative of the gas leak victims and now a local politician. Singh had cited a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri), Nagpur, which said that toxic waste in the factory was a health hazard to the local community and was also likely to contaminate the area's groundwater by 2007. The high court concluded that the parties involved -- Union Carbide Corporation (ucc), now merged with Dow Chemical Company, ucc's Indian buyer Eveready Industries (India) Limited, as also the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (mppcb), the state and Union governments -- were all dragging their feet on the matter and gave orders to the state and central authorities to ensure the cleanup.

Subsequently, a task force was set up by the mp high court, with members from the central government's department of chemicals and petrochemicals, the Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation department (bgtrrd), the mp pollution control board (mppcb), Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb), Delhi, neeri and the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (iict), Hyderabad. On April 27, 2005, the task force suggested a three-phase cleanup. On May 13, 2005, the court gave further orders that the first phase should be completed before the onset of monsoon. This whole process was to be coordinated by the bgtrrd, with technical support from mppcb.

Need for transparency In their haste to meet this deadline, the authorities started the cleanup work on May 31, 2005. But the migrant labour hired for making a shed preparatory to the operation, wasn't told it was shifting toxic material around, nor were standard precautions taken. The entire operation was carried out under wraps, with armed guards posted on the site.

The first phase was set for collection and safe storage of the surface factory waste. Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited, Hyderabad initiated the repacking work. No measures, however, were taken to protect the community. 140 people from the nearby Blue Moon colony ended up at the local government hospital, but were not provided any relief, nor did the police take action when residents complained about the matter. State officials dismiss these fears. Says a senior health department official, "The doctors didn't find anything wrong. The people who went to the hospitals are associated with the non-governmental organisations (ngos) in the area and were just out to make trouble". Officials add that photographs of migrant labour, taken at the factory by journalists, are plants.

There's more in store. Ramky officials claim that mppcb was monitoring the air outside the factory, but mppcb officials say monitoring was not even needed as dust or gases did not go out of the premises. "I was observing the process of cleanup and could not smell anything," says Dharmendra Shukla, member secretary, mppcb. K S M Rao, head of Ramky's waste management unit, also brushes aside the community's objections. "We got complaints of dust and odours even before we started work. Then they complained about the smell of benzenehexachloride (bhc) on day four, when repacking was done only on day six". Government officials involved in the operation are satisfied. "The cleanup is monitored by the high court's task force. The sc's monitoring committee on hazardous wastes, that assessed the site on July 14, 2005 is satisfied with the work," says Manoj Goyal, director, bgtrrd.

The company and the state may be complacent, but the people are not. Local ngos say the company did nothing to ensure the safety of the people or the environment and apprehend a similar situation in the next two phases. In fact, Satish Tewari, from the local environment group studying the situation on behalf of the sc's monitoring committee, says odours did emanate to the colony from the factory during the cleanup. Tewari also wrote to the sc committee's chairperson about the procedure not being transparent enough.

For now, the process has been suspended till August 11, 2005 when the ngos will present their own roadmap for a proper cleanup to the high court. A high court order on June 23, 2005 has also declared that four major ngo s working in the area now have to be included in the process. Incidentally, the original petitioner, Alok Pratap Singh, is also under a cloud. The court order expresses doubt, saying that he "may be a person set up by Dow Chemicals Company to file the pil, so as to avoid responsibility for the cleanup task".

Meanwhile, on July 12, 2005, the court heard out the ngo s on their worries over procedure. Incidentally, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who represented Dow Chemicals, is also the spokesperson for the Congress party, which has been blamed in the past for accepting a very low compensation for the victims and taking back the land from ucc without ensuring that it was cleaned of toxic content. Rachna Dhingra, International Campaign for Justice, finds the haste to follow the court order suspicious, given that state authorities "are yet to follow an earlier sc order of May 7, 2004, which had said that Bhopal gas victims should be provided clean drinking water."

Ship the waste to the us?
With the mp high court now taking charge of the procedure, chances of the us court absolving itself from the entire process cannot be ruled out. There are also some fears about an attempt by Dow to get the case dismissed at the us end. A letter dated July 12, 2005, from Kelly Drye & Warren llp, the us -based law firm representing Dow (versus Indian victims demanding that polluters pay) suggests that the us court should not involve itself in the remediation of the plant site, as work is already on, under the supervision of the mp high court and Indian authorities.

At the heart of the whole controversy is the technology needed to clean up the site. The June 23, 2005 order suggested that the second phase of work should include the creation of a secure landfill for solid waste at Pithampur, near Indore and tar waste be moved to Gujarat for incineration. In fact, at a meeting on July 14, 2005 between ngos and the sc's monitoring committee, it was obvious that the members of the committee favoured decontamination work being done in India only.

The ngos are not happy about this, given that landfills are not usually very secure and the waste is only likely to contaminate any new area. Activists suggest that the waste be packed in steel drums and be shipped back to the us, citing the example of waste from the Hindustan Lever Limited thermometer factory being sent back to the us recently. "Whatever happens, we are not going to let waste be sent to Pithampur," says Rashida Bee, Bhopal Gas Peedit Stationery Karamchari Sangh.

Ramky has got the go ahead to make the landfill near Indore. ngos say iict may also be commissioned to oversee the factory cleanup, despite its lack of expertise in this area; a sign of the collusion between industry and politicians.

The final decision on the waste relocation will be taken by the task force. The Centre has also written to the us courts to make available Rs 100 crore as partial payment, despite conservative estimates by a team of international experts at Rs 115-135 crore. Exactly who is to pay is also not clear. "The focus on surface contamination doesn't allow for the cost of soil and water cleanup," points out Satinath Sarangi, Bhopal Group for Information Action.

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