The endgame has begun. The present moment, coming after the extraordinarily shoddy Group of Ministers (GoM) report on Bhopal and the Madhya Pradesh government’s manoeuvres to hammer a lid on the issue of contamination of the pesticides plant and its surroundings, is probably the last opportunity to prevent an artificial closure of all the complex as-yet-unresolved issues the disaster raises. Failure to prevent such closure will only add to the injustice and ignominy heaped upon the victims of gross negligence on the part of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) 26 years ago. There could be no worse way of insulting the genuine public concern about justice for Bhopal, ignited by the outrageous punishment delivered in the June 7 judgment by the trial court in Bhopal.
A definite time line has crystallised on Bhopal with the Ministry of Environment and Forests uploading on its website a June 26 report on the plant site by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Geophysical Research Institute. The report minimises, indeed trivialises, the extent of contamination of the site and of groundwater and recommends totally inadequate and ineffective remedies.
Unless it is subjected to a sharp critique by independent experts, environmentalists, social activists and conscientious citizens before mid-August, there is every likelihood that the government will act on it hastily and undertake inappropriate and inadequate remediation to disastrous effect. It has already set aside Rs.310 crore for the purpose and named an oversight committee. This will play straight into the hands of Dow Chemical Co., which purchased 100 per cent of UCC but refuses to own up the inherited liabilities. This is inconsistent with the material facts of the case, besides being violative of the principles of natural justice. Dow has refused to subject itself to the jurisdiction of Indian courts and is lobbying hard to get the government to clean up the Bhopal site.
Letting Dow off the hook will undermine the objective of securing even a modicum of justice for Bhopal. Site remediation at public expense – or even with funding from public and private corporations – means a retreat from pursuing Dow/UCC legally in the United States.
NEERI’s latest report contradicts the numerous site studies conducted by official and non-governmental agencies, including Greenpeace (1999), the Centre for Science and Environment and the Central Pollution Control Board (both in 2009). All these studies found toxic contamination in the plant, the soil, and water and underground aquifers several kilometres away.
More than 20,000 residents, many of them gas victims, have been exposed to deadly chemical contamination, about which NEERI is in denial. The contaminants, some of them carcinogens, include heavy metals mercury, chromium and lead; highly toxic organochlorines such as hexachloroethane, hexachlorobutadiene and hexachlorocyclohexane; and chlorinated benzenes, besides Carbide-manufactured pesticides.
NEERI’s denial is part of a pattern that goes back to 1990, when NEERI was hired by the consultancy Arthur D. Little, which Carbide had appointed for “all aspects of site rehabilitation”. In the early 1990s, UCIL itself analysed water from the solar evaporation ponds (SEPs) outside the factory walls and found lead, cadmium, arsenic, cyanide, chlorides, phenols and carbaryl pesticide. In a classified internal memo, Carbide’s head of health, safety and environmental research cast doubts on NEERI’s findings: “We do not know the exact sample and analytical protocols used.” The UCC’s internal documents criticised NEERI for many weaknesses, including ignoring standard sampling procedures, failure to develop contamination standards, recommending unrealistic standards, and a tendency to play safe.
Even a layperson cannot fail to detect shoddiness and flaws in NEERI’s poorly written and tediously repetitive report. The number of samples of soil (90) and water (from 5 borewells) was extremely low given the large area of the plant (78 acres, or 31.56 hectares). Large parts of the site, in the east and the north-east, were excluded. No systematic grid-based approach was followed to detect contamination. The principal method used was measuring electrical resistivity, which is neither generally accurate nor functional in the presence of contaminated machinery and buildings or vegetation. These were not thoroughly cleared before the survey. NEERI arbitrarily limited sampling to a 2-metre depth – when the SEPs, which leach polluted water, are 6 metres deep. It also used a faulty water-transport model.
NEERI’s latest report fully conforms to its poor, misleading reports of 1990 and 1997, which too concluded that the SEPs had not polluted soil and groundwater – although a high 20 per cent of the site area was found heavily contaminated. NEERI claimed that the soil was clayey and hence impermeable: “It would take 23 years for the contaminants to reach the groundwater table”, and hence “the water meets… drinking… quality criteria”. But a State government survey had found high levels of industrial chemicals in wells around the plant.
Arthur D. Little reviewed NEERI’s 1997 draft report in a 17-page critique, which showed that its estimated travel-times for water were too low and that soil strata above the water table largely consist of “sandy soil and sandstone bedrock. Clay is only present to a depth of 6.1 metres.” This could cut travel-time to two years.
The UCC knew all this but noted NEERI’s great advantage: the State Pollution Control Board “did not question its investigations and recommendations”. So with the utmost cynicism, the UCC decided to “entrust the work to NEERI”. NEERI’s report is not a serious, credible, competent scientific document. Its recommendation that part of the waste must be incinerated at a facility near Pithampur, in Madhya Pradesh, must be summarily rejected. Several independent experts, both Indian and international, including a waste disposal specialist at Thermax Ltd, have said that let alone Pithampur, no Indian facility has the ability and experience to dispose of safely wastes containing organochlorines; incinerating these releases dioxins, which are among the most toxic substances known to science.
No Indian factory or laboratory has much expertise in chemical waste disposal, which can only come after decades of specialised study and experience. Following the 1984 leak, Indian engineers faced the challenge of disposing of the residual methyl isocyanate. They chose the easiest option: converting it into a pesticide in accordance with Carbide’s process.
So is there a solution to the waste-contamination problem? There is. Bhopal was a global-scale disaster. Ending its toxic legacy demands international cooperation. The European Commission has offered “any assistance needed to comprehensively assess the spread and depth of Union Carbide’s contamination legacy, and recommend remedial measures… in line with the European Union’s risk assessment protocols and clean-up requirements”.
In mid-July, a European Parliament committee wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extending “solidarity” with the effort at cleaning up the Bhopal site. It is imperative that the government accept the offer and launch several joint projects to assess the contamination and explore different remediation methods. False notions of prestige should not be allowed to impede safe waste disposal – and justice for the victims.
An international expert solidarity group has warned: “There is strong evidence for the existence of a sub-surface ‘toxic plume’, composed primarily of trapped chlorinated solvents…. Hasty excavation of contaminated soils could exacerbate the problem, and so we urge a detailed site assessment…. Excavation, removal and reburial of large amounts of hazardous waste itself creates a host of environmental health issues, and must be subjected to detailed risk assessment.” NEERI’s assessment cannot be trusted to be sound. There are countless cases in which it has produced poor or misleading environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports, fudged or dressed up data, and revised and rewritten its own reports – to certify hazardous processes as safe. Examples are the Sterlite smelter, Sethusamudram, and numerous mining, hydroelectricity and nuclear projects.
Two other issues demand urgent course correction and revision of the GoM’s recommendations: compensation to the victims, which is abysmally low and excludes two-thirds of the deaths (discussed in this column, “To rebuild lives”, July 16); and a curative petition to the Supreme Court. It is imperative to raise the compensation several-fold and treat it as an interim amount to be recovered eventually from those liable for the disaster. The curative petition reportedly covers the $470 million compensation and enhancement of criminal charges. But the first will be of limited value unless UCC/Dow is brought into Indian jurisdiction, or alternatively, sued in the U.S. through the government joining the pending litigation in New York.
Yet, it is hard to see all this happening unless the public exercises moral pressure on the government, in which many pro-corporate and pro-Carbide interests are active.
These can only be contained by public opinion. All citizens, who solidarise with the victims, must press the government not to rush to bring Bhopal to an artificial closure.
PRAFUL BIDWAI, WRITING IN THE HINDU