An ongoing disaster

Published : Jul 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Contamination of soil and groundwater caused by the toxic waste left in Union Carbide's abandoned Bhopal plant poses a new health hazard for the survivors of the 1984 gas disaster, and the Government of India fails to come to their rescue.

V. VENKATESAN in Bhopal Photographs: A.M. Faruqui

THE two police constables keeping vigil at the 65-acre (26 hectare) abandoned factory site of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal, may just be doing their duty. But the protection of the structures which shelter toxic chemicals since the disastrous gas leak from the factory in 1984 has not helped allay the fears of the local population that the waste material dumped in and around the factory site is responsible for the soil and groundwater contamination in the neighbourhood.

The Government of India, under the pressure of public opinion over the indefinite fast undertaken in New Delhi by three activists - Satinath Sarangi and the two Goldman Environmental Prize awardees Champadevi Shukla and Rashida Bee - decided on June 23 to convey its "no objection" to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considering environmental contamination claims "unrelated" to the 1984 disaster. But the gas-affected people were not elated: for them, it meant that the government agreed with them but did not feel a moral obligation either to mitigate their grievances at home or to intervene in the proceedings before the U.S. court.

The government perhaps thought its responsibility was over with the issue of the "no objection" letter to the U.S. court to direct Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) to clean up the mess it left behind in its Bhopal plant. The government did so after making sure that such a letter would not infringe the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, which it initially thought would cover the victims' current environmental claims too. Once it was convinced that the Act excluded survivors' claims for environmental damages, the government could have shown its readiness to intervene in the class action suit, and urged the U.S. court to order such relief as demanded by the plaintiff organisations. By only claiming that it had "no objection" to such relief being granted, the government reduced itself to a passive bystander to the ongoing litigation in the U.S., as if the case was of concern only to the survivors and that it was not moved by the enormity of the corporate crime committed by UCC in India. The government probably thought its "no objection" letter was necessary to erase any impression of lack of sensitivity towards the gas victims.

Had the government expressed its solidarity with those who are fighting the case in the U.S., it could have used the opportunity to correct years of environmental degradation and the consequent health hazards, directly attributable to the manner in which UCIL maintained its plant.

By issuing a "no objection" letter, the government has now tacitly approved the evidence of groundwater contamination caused by the Bhopal plant. Although the plant commenced its operation in 1969, it was only in 1979 that it began to manufacture pesticides that it previously imported. As a by-product of the expanded operations, hazardous wastes were produced. UCIL kept these wastes in tanks and pits at the plant site, as well as in three solar evaporation ponds (SEP) constructed on the non-contiguous leased property some 800 metres north of the plant.

On November 15, 1999, Greenpeace published a report entitled "The Bhopal Legacy", after testing soil and groundwater samples from the vicinity of the plant at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. The test results demonstrated extensive and in some locations severe chemical contamination of the environment surrounding the plant.

The Greenpeace report ought to have spurred the government to examine the findings through its own agencies. With the gas survivors seeking justice in U.S. courts, the government faced no pressure to act. However, new evidence has now come to the fore - thanks to the discovery process in the class action suit before the U.S. court - pointing to the fact that UCC had prior knowledge of the possibility of groundwater contamination at the Bhopal site.

There were, for instance, material differences in environmental disposal practices between the Bhopal plant and the UCC plant at Institute, West Virginia, U.S. The UCC was aware that groundwater contamination of the aquifer was likely in Bhopal because the design of the U.S. facility was based on water discharges to the Kanawha river. In Bhopal, all waste water streams from the pesticide unit would discharge into the SEPs.

At the design stage itself, UCC knew that its technology and design choices created a foreseeable risk of groundwater contamination. Union Carbide's engineering department at South Charleston, in a document dated July 21, 1972, warned of the "danger of polluting subsurface water supplies in the Bhopal area, and recommended that "new ponds will have to be constructed at one to two-year intervals throughout the life of the project in order to prevent this danger". This recommendation was never implemented. The department also proposed a "waste liquid incinerator" to address the problem of groundwater contamination, but this too was not incorporated into the design of the Bhopal plant. Only three SEPs were planned and built.

The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in March refers to a UCIL document, which indicates that in March 1982, it was aware of a leak from one of the SEPs and that another SEP showed "signs of leakage". The decision referred to another document of April 1982, which showed that UCIL was greatly concerned about continued leakage from an SEP.

In their appeal petition before the U.S. court, the plaintiff-survivors alleged: "Union Carbide's objective was to recover assets from UCIL and surrender its land lease to Madhya Pradesh State authorities. Since the lease conditions required environmental clean-up of the site before the land was returned, UCC sought to conceal the widespread on-site and off-site environmental contamination that it had caused with a largely cosmetic site remediation effort undertaken at minimal expense." The State government, which took over the land from UCIL's successor, Eveready Industries India Ltd. (EIIL), in September 1998 did not exercise caution in ensuring that the land was returned to it in its original condition, fit for industrial purposes, as required by the lease.

The plaintiffs' petition has highlighted several other startling facts. The project document of UCC had estimated that the "total inflow" into the three SEPs would be at 5.550 metric tonnes for each year that UCIL was in operation. In 1989, UCC was aware that this accumulated toxic waste was leaching into the soil and the groundwater at the site because the lining of the ponds "might have developed leaks resulting in permeation of the effluent into the soil".

The internal documents of UCC, examined by the plaintiffs during the discovery process, throw more light on its "Bhopal Site Rehabilitation and Assets Recovery Project". Since no Indian organisation has had similar exposure in terms of environmental remediation, Union Carbide decided to appoint a global management firm, Arthur D.Little & Co (ADL), as its consultants for the purpose of implementing the project along with an Indian agency, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

The Indian agency had produced two reports, the first in April 1990 in response to the State government's request, and the second in October 1997, after EIIL retained it to assess the environmental conditions on the plant premises. The second NEERI report found contamination within the plant site at the waste disposal areas. However, it reaffirmed the first report's finding of no groundwater contamination in and around the plant site.

Internal documents show that UCIL, despite using NEERI's findings to its advantage, was sceptical about their validity. Another internal document in 1996 revealed that NEERI's investigation was conducted under "ADL's guidance", since "NEERI, although a premier organisation, did not have experience" in environmental testing. UCIL officials submitted a draft of NEERI's final report to ADL experts for evaluation.

Experts of ADL questioned the report as they identified major issues concerning groundwater at the site. In its letter of March 1997, carrying its comments on the report, to the resident general manager of EIIL, C.K. Hayaran, ADL specified: "There does not appear to be sufficient information to discount a potential impact to groundwater from contaminated soils present on the facility." Yet NEERI disagreed with ADL's reservations and prepared its final report ruling out groundwater contamination.

In 1994, pressure exerted by victims' organisations compelled the State government to order an inspection of the closed UCIL factory. The inspection revealed that 44 tonnes of tarry residues generated during the manufacture of "Sevin" and 2.5 tonnes of another chemical, alpha naphthol, which were collected in drums, troughs and bags, had been stored in open areas within the plant premises. These hazardous materials were subsequently shifted and stored in a covered area. As Frontline's pictures reveal, those stored in covered halls are not secure from rainwater, because of the gaps in the ceilings. This heightens the danger of leaching and groundwater contamination.

In October 1997, a three-member committee with representatives from NEERI and the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board visited the factory site at the instance of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The committee noticed that the drums and bags were in a rundown condition so much so that any attempt to shift them might lead to their breaking, resulting in spillage of hazardous waste. They also observed that residues, after melting, were spreading on the floor and outside the shed. The committee warned that during the rainy season the hazardous waste that had spilled might contaminate water and spread to other areas. The SEPs were lined with a film of polythene to prevent seepage. However, the resistance offered by such a sheet to a complex mix of corrosive substances has been found ineffective. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that toxins from the SEPs would have contaminated the groundwater in the adjoining areas.

Another study, carried out by Srishti, a Delhi-based organisation, in January 2002 examined the movement of chemical pollutants from one level to another through the food chain. The samples were analysed at the Facility of Ecological and Analytical Testing (FEAT) laboratory of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.

Soil, groundwater, vegetables grown in the area, and even human breast milk were investigated and were found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals that cause multiple diseases, including fever, diarrhoea, respiratory and nervous disorders and cancer.

Another study, by the People's Science Institute (PSI), Dehra Dun, in September 2001, showed a high concentration of mercury in groundwater near the former UCIL factory. The PSI collected groundwater samples from seven handpumps and seven tubewells in the residential areas surrounding the factory from where specific complaints about the quality of groundwater had emanated.. Samples were also collected from the SEPs and from an open well. The PSI report warned: "The human nervous system is very sensitive to mercury. Exposure to sufficiently high levels of mercury causes permanent damage to the brain and the kidneys."

The State government, which recommended to the Centre, to issue a no-objection letter to the U.S. court, has been awfully remiss in ensuring the supply of potable water to the affected residents. This was despite the fact that a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices S.D. Sinha and Y.K. Sabharwal had directed the State government on May 7 in Research Foundation for Science vs Union of India to supply fresh drinking water in tanks or pipes expeditiously. Survivor organisations have found that the supply of drinking water through tankers in the affected areas is far below the requirement, forcing people to collect water by working the handpumps. The Department of Bhopal Gas Relief and Rehabilitation of the Madhya Pradesh government has claimed that it has tested all sources of groundwater in the gas-affected areas and wherever it found contamination, it either closed them or allowed their use only for non-drinking purposes such as washing clothes. But the department did not reveal the details of the tests. Nor did it explain how it would ensure the non-use of contaminated water for drinking purposes, or mitigate its harmful effects if used for non-drinking purposes.

Says N.D. Jayaprakash, co-convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, one of the plaintiff organisations seeking environmental relief before the U.S. court: "The Government of India must do much more than merely filing a `no objection' letter; it has to oversee the clean-up process and also take up the cause of all those who have been affected by drinking contaminated water or otherwise exposed to the toxic effects of environmental contamination." Considering the absolute lack of interest in this matter in government circles in Bhopal and New Delhi, his advice would appear to be a tall order.


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