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No takers for Bhopal toxic waste

By KS Shaini
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Waste at the Bhopal plant
No way has been found to dispose off the waste

There are no takers for the toxic waste left behind at the site of the world's worst industrial accident.

In the early hours of 3 December 1984, a toxic chemical leaked from a pesticide plant then run by the US company, Union Carbide, in the city of Bhopal in India's northern state of Madhya Pradesh.

Nearly 3,000 people died on the night of the leak. There have been at least 15,000 related deaths since.

For the last 24 years, 390 metric tonnes of the waste has been lying on the premises of the now defunct plant - and no way has yet been found to dispose of it safely.

The latest setback came when the government in neighbouring Gujarat state backed out of a commitment of incinerating a large part of the waste at an industrial incinerator in the state.

Before this, India's defence ministry refused to take up the job and recommended the country's National Institute of Disaster Management as the appropriate agency to clean up the site. The institute declined.

Backing out

In May, the Madhya Pradesh high court ordered that 40 metric tonnes of the waste be transported to the state's Dhar district and dumped in landfills there - the remaining 350 metric tonnes was to be incinerated in Gujarat.

The Gujarat government consented to the plan, but a company which had been given the contract to transport the waste backed out saying it lacked the expertise for the job.

Then the state's Pollution Control Board developed cold feet and said that the waste would not be "allowed the cross the border of Gujarat".

The Bhopal plant
Some 3,000 people died on the night of the leak

The waste at the site includes by-products of Sevin, the pesticide that was produced in the plant, unsold finished products and raw materials.

Experts say it is a virtual storehouse of deadly chemicals including lead, mercury and chlorinated naphthalene. These chemicals can cause cancer - affecting the growth of children - and can lead to other disorders in the human body.

When the plant was working, the waste was dumped in solar evaporation ponds on its premises.

Sathyu Sarangi of Sambhavna Trust, a non governmental organisation (NGO) working with the gas victims, says the waste is posing a huge environmental threat.

"It is seeping into the earth with rain water continuously. Though there is no clear estimate of the vertical and horizontal area that has been contaminated , water from hand pumps as far as five to 10km (three to six miles) away from the plant has been found to contain toxic chemicals," he says.

'Alarming levels'

Mr Sarangi says this could affect tens of thousands of lower-middle class and poor families living in settlements around the plant.

Another activist Rachna Dhingra says that the government had sealed off the hand pumps in the area after a report by India's National Environmental Engineering Institute found "alarming levels of toxicity" in the groundwater samples.

Ms Dhingra says people continue to use water from the sealed taps in the absence of new sources of piped water.

In May 2004, India's Supreme Court passed an order saying that the settlements around the plant should start getting clean drinking water before the onset of the monsoon.

Bhopal protesters
There have been a number of protests against the contamination of water

Four years later, more than 25,000 people living in 14 colonies around the factory continue to drink water suspected to be toxic.

Dow Chemical is the American firm which bought Union Carbide in 2001.

Dow says it is not responsible for cleaning up the site, which sits on land owned by the Madhya Pradesh state government.

The federal government has filed an application in the local court asking it to direct Dow Chemicals to pay 10 million rupees as advance for the clean-up of the site.

The local pollution control board says it carries out quarterly tests on the soil and water of the area around the plant, but there is no information of what action is taken.

While different agencies, companies and governments deny they are responsible for dealing with the waste, there seems no end in sight to Bhopal's environmental tragedy.



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