Toxic waste remains in Bhopal 24 years after gas disaster

July 7th, 2008 - 10:36 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, July 7 (IANS) Hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste still remains on the grounds of the Bhopal pesticide factory, formerly owned by Union Carbide, a quarter-century after the industrial disaster, due to delays by the government in removing it and the current US owner of the factory washing its hands of the mess, reports an influential US daily. No one has examined to what extent the remaining waste has seeped into the soil and water, except in desultory checks by a state environmental agency, which showed pesticide residues in the neighbourhood wells far exceeding permissible levels, the New York Times said Monday.

Already, those who have drunk the contaminated water and tended kitchen gardens on this soil present a wide range of ailments, including cleft palates and mental retardation, among their children as evidence of a second generation of Bhopal gas victims.

The story reported by Somini Sengupta from India, blames the Indian government and the bureaucracy for their failure to make the factory owners do anything about the mess they left behind, and brings into focus the urgency of who will pay for the cleanup of the 11-acre site.

Advocates for those who live near the site insist that Dow Chemical Company, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, also bought its liabilities and should pay for the cleanup.

Dow, based in Michigan, says it bears no responsibility to clean up a mess it did not create. Scot Wheeler, a company spokesman, told the Times that the former factory property, along with the waste it contained, had been turned over to the Madhya Pradesh State government in June 1998, and that “for whatever reason most of us do not know or fully understand, the site remains unremediated.”

He went on to say that Dow could not finance remediation efforts, even if it wanted to, because it could potentially open up the company to further liabilities.

In 2006, Dow chairman Andrew N. Liveris sought assurance from the Indian government that the company would not be held liable for the mess on the old factory site, “in your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.”

Government correspondence, revealed through public information requests, showed that one arm of the government, the Chemicals and Petrochemicals Ministry, entrusted with the cleanup of the site, has wanted Dow to put down a $25 million deposit toward the cost of remediation, while other senior officials warned that forcing Dow’s hand could endanger future investments in the country.

The government is expected to make a final decision later this year.

Meanwhile the 425 tonnes of hazardous waste - some local activists allege there is a great deal more, buried in the factory grounds - remains in a tin-roofed warehouse, where it was stored about four years ago, after it was collected from clumps lying around the factory grounds.

The waste was supposed to be taken to an incinerator in neighbouring Gujarat, but the government has yet to find a contractor willing to pack it into small, transportable parcels. There have been delays in acquiring transport permits, too, with citizens groups raising new questions about the hazards of transporting the waste.

Ajay Vishnoi, Madhya Pradesh Gas and Health Minister, however, was quoted as saying by the Times that he was confident that none of the waste was hazardous any more, nor had anyone proved to his satisfaction that it had ever caused the contamination of the groundwater. “There is hype,” he said.

At least 3,000 people had died immediately after the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leak at the factory on December 3, 1984, and 500,000 people were declared to be affected by the gas and awarded compensation, an average of $550. Some victims say they have yet to receive any money.

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