25 years on, Govt wakes up to Bhopal waste but can’t find any one to clean it up

Sonu Jain, Express India, June 15, 2008
Bhopal, June 14 386 tonnes were collected and stored in 2005 but no response to tenders; no estimate of total waste so far
Who will clean up the waste lying at the site of the Bhopal gas disaster? And when?
Months before the 25th anniversary of what is known as the world’s worst industrial disaster, the clean-up at the 67-acre factory site has become a buck passed from one state to another, one agency to another. No one has even put an exact number to the amount of waste, its chemical composition and what effect it has had on the ground.
For years, the state government and the Centre had a fig leaf: the waste should lie untouched awaiting the long-drawn legal battle that’s currently on to figure out whether it’s Dow’s liability. Dow Chemicals bought Union Carbide in 2001 and denies any legal liability in dealing with the waste.
But at a meeting of officials from Madhya Pradesh and the Centre on June 3, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed concern over the waste and directed the state government to “expedite the process.”
That’s easier said than done.
* In 2004, the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered the constitution of a task force under the chairmanship of Secretary, Department of Chemical and Petrochemicals, to monitor “overall environmental remediation,” which includes the clean-up.
* The next year, after reports that Sevin tar — the pesticide that Union Carbide manufactured — was leaking from one of the storage tanks, the Madhya Pradesh government collected 386 tonnes of waste in sacks and barrels which were then stored in a concrete godown in one corner of the factory site.
* Of this, 346 tonnes were proposed to be incinerated at a private firm, Bharuch Environ Infrastructure, in Ankleshwar, Gujarat. The remaining 40 tonnes were to be taken to a secure landfill at Pithampur in the state’s Dhar district.
* But in April, the Gujarat government withdrew permission given to transport the waste to Ankleshwar after a fire at Bharuch Infrastructure’s toxic waste treatment and storage facility.
* Meanwhile, for a year, no one responded to tenders for transporting the waste to Ankleshwar and Dhar. The MP government wrote letters to eight hazardous-waste transporters specifying terms defined by Central and state pollution control boards. Only last month, a firm responded but its application is still being processed.
* The task force has met 13 times and at its last meeting in May, the committee asked the government to finalize the clean-up of the 386 tonnes in a month’s time. And urged the Madhya Pradesh government to get Gujarat to co-operate.
But the 386 tonnes is just scratching the surface. “This is a red herring. The real threat is the 10,000 tonnes of waste buried in and around the factory. No urgency has been shown in tackling these wastes for the last 25 years. For this, a comprehensive study of depth and spread of contaminants is the first step. Resolving liability issues and the remediation exercise can proceed simultaneously. The question of who should pay — the taxpayer or the polluter— should not occupy the court’s time for too long if it takes up the matter in right earnest,” said Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhawna Trust who is now on a hunger strike in Delhi pressing for cleanup.
The storage tanks that once upon a time contained pesticide, gas chambers and pipes, lie rusting. Experts believe that most of the contaminants have leaked into the ground. No study has been done so far to gauge the level of contamination. The task force has now proposed that the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology and National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) give a proposal to the MP state government for providing consultancy in “detoxification, dismantling and decommissioning of the plant.”
“There is a need to find out the impact of wind, rain and theft at the factory site before the environmental remediation plan is made. Once these studies are done, we will be able to demolish and treat the whole structure,” said S P Gautam, chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board and member of the task force.
There is a proposal by Ratan Tata for an industry-led effort of remediation of the site of Bhopal gas leak. The Department of Economic Affairs has given its view that the government should take up the offer. On the other hand, the Ministry of Chemicals has said that Dow should be made to pay Rs 100 crore for the clean-up. This issue is pending with a Group of Ministers led by Arjun Singh.
Meanwhile, the state government blames the Centre. “The Central government is solely responsible for the Bhopal gas victims after the Indian Disaster Act 1984. The state government has put forward a Rs 982-crore action plan which includes environmental remediation. The Central government should provide the funds,” said Babu Lal Gaur, Minister for Bhopal Gas relief department.

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