Bhopal site 'still badly polluted'
Friday, 3 December, 1999, 15:53 GMT BBC News Online
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The environmental campaign Greenpeace says the site around the former Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in central India remains severely contaminated, 15 years after the accident which killed at least 2,000 people.

The accident happened when the plant, which manufactured pesticides, leaked poisonous gas into the surrounding area.

In its report into the condition of the site, entitled The Bhopal Legacy, Greenpeace puts the number killed at "an estimated 16,000", with as many as half a million injured.

Among the toxic chemicals it says remain there is mercury, which is highly toxic to the central nervous system. Chronic exposure can cause eye and kidney problems and memory loss, while acute levels may cause respiratory problems and even death.

Greenpeace says the levels of mercury found in a sample taken in May this year inside the factory were between 20,000 and six million times higher than the background levels to be expected in uncontaminated soils.

Water contamination feared
It also reports the presence of organochlorines, a class of chemicals which includes the anti-malarial DDT and also PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The use of one or both has been banned by many countries.

Greenpeace says some of the organochlorines found in groundwater supplying communities of Bhopal survivors living near the site are known to have been used at the plant during its routine operations.

Ruth Stringer of Greenpeace said: "The results of the survey indicate severe contamination by toxic chemicals at a number of locations within the old plant".

"The extent and nature of toxic chemicals found in the ground water indicate the need for immediate action to provide clean drinking water supplies for the local communities, and to prevent further releases from the factory site itself."

The report says the worst contaminated groundwater sample, taken from a handpump by the factory's north-east corner, contained carbon tetrachloride.

This is suspected of causing cancer: the sample taken was 1,705 times above the limit set by the World Health Organisation.

Chloroform in the same sample was 260 times above the drinking water standard set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Clean-up demand
Greenpeace's toxics campaigner in India, Nityanand Jayaraman, said: "The fact that Union Carbide has escaped without cleaning up the site exposes the gaping loophole in the legal and administrative infrastructure to ensure corporate responsibility".

The company says the accident "continues to be a source of anguish" to it. It has paid $470 million in settlement to the Government of India.

As well, it says, it has provided $20 m for a hospital for the victims, and the sale of Union Carbide shares in India has raised a further $54 m for the hospital and local clinics.