Jan 31 deadline to remove Bhopal gas waste unlikely to be met

December 30th, 2008 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

Bhopal, Dec 30 (IANS) It has been 24 years since over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) spewed out of the now defunct Union Carbide’s pesticide plant here, killing thousands of people instantly and maiming many for life. But the state government is still grappling with ways to dispose of the toxic waste left behind that poses grave health hazards to people living nearby.The world’s worst man-made disaster - the Bhopal gas tragedy - occured on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, and the Madhya Pradesh High Court had set a Jan 31, 2009, deadline to remove the poisonous waste from the plant site, but this seems to be a tough task.

The over 390 tonnes of toxic waste at the site includes by-products of sevin, the pesticide that was produced in the plant, unsold finished products and raw materials.

According to medical experts, the site is a virtual storehouse of deadly chemicals including lead, mercury and chlorinated naphthalene that can cause cancer, affect the growth of children and lead to other health disorders. But more than 25,000 people living in 14 colonies around the factory have no option but to continue drinking the contaminated water.

On Dec 18, the Madhya Pradesh High Court, responding to a public interest petition, ordered that 40 tonnes of the waste be transported to the state’s Dhar district and dumped in landfills there. The remaining 350 tonnes was to be incinerated in Gujarat’s Ankleshwar town.

It set Jan 31, 2009, as the last date for executing its orders, but with the Gujarat government unwilling, it is unlikely that the deadline will be met.

The bench comprising Chief Justice A.K. Patnaik and Justice Ajit Singh also warned that individuals or institutions obstructing the process to dispose of the toxic waste would be tried for contempt of court.

“But given the Gujarat government’s attitude, it is unlikely that the deadline set by the high court would be met,” said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group of Information and Action (BGIA), which works among the victims of the gas leak disaster.

“Madhya Pradesh requires the Gujarat government’s No Objection Certificate before the toxic waste is transported and this is next to impossible,” she said.

The Gujarat administration has already moved the Supreme Court to challenge the Madhya Pradesh court’s order.

“The issue is slated to come up for hearing in the Supreme Court Jan 22 and we (gas victims’ organisations) would side with the Gujarat government as removing the waste is the responsibility of Union Carbide (present-day Dow Chemicals),” Dhingra said.

Twenty-four years later, the toxic waste left behind in the plant premises is still posing a health risk as studies have shown that it is continuously seeping into the earth with rain water, affecting tens of thousands of lower-middle class and poor families living in settlements around the plant.

“Though there is no clear estimate of the vertical and horizontal area that has been contaminated, water from hand pumps as far as 5-10 km away from the plant has been found to contain toxic chemicals,” said Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust, an NGO working with the victims of the tragedy.

The Chingari Trust set up by Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, which is working for gas survivors, has identified over 120 children born with congenital abnormalities that can be attributed to their parents being exposed to MIC.

At a health camp in December 2006, medical specialists from New Delhi and Bhopal found that an unusually large number of children had birth defects in communities exposed to the gas and contaminated groundwater.

“They were mostly found to be suffering from cerebral palsy that causes total disability,” Sarangi told IANS.

“Scientific studies by government and non-government agencies have also confirmed the presence of several birth defects caused by pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals in the groundwater near the abandoned Union Carbide factory,” he added.

Studies by the state pollution control board too have shown that pesticides like endrin, dieldrin, carbaryl, methoxychlor that can cause birth defects are still present in groundwater samples collected from the area. Global environmental group Greenpeace reported finding tetra-, penta- and hexa-chlorobenzene as well as lead and mercury in soil and groundwater samples, all of which can cause birth defects.

(Sanjay Sharma can be contacted at sanjay.s@ians.in)

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