by Sandeep Pouranik
Bhopal: The tens of thousands who survived the leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984 not only battle the after-effects but also live with an unsavoury legacy: 18,000 tonnes of toxic waste in the defunct plant that is polluting the environment and contaminating the soil and ground water.
The nearly 2,000 truckloads of the waste had been accumulating for nearly 15 years before the world’s worst industrial disaster struck, killing over 3,000 people immediately and thousands others over the years due to related causes.
Union Carbide had set up the pesticide plant in 1969. Twenty-one ponds were dug to dispose of the toxic effluent from the plant. The ponds were in use till 1977 when they proved to be inadequate due to the increasing volume of effluent from the plant. This necessitated a 32-acre solar evaporation pond, soon followed by two more such. Water from the effluent in these ponds got evaporated, leaving behind the harmful chemicals.
In 1996, waste from the three ponds was gathered in one pond and covered with soil. This waste exceeds 18,000 tonnes, Satinath Shadangi, a member of rights body Bhopal Group for Information and Action, told IANS.
It was only when various research showed that this waste was contaminating the soil and ground water and its spread was increasing over time that urgent steps were planned to destroy it, Shadangi said.
Alok Pratap Singh, who has been crusading for the rights of the victims of the gas tragedy, moved the Jabalpur High Court in July 2004 for disposal of the waste. The court constituted a task force to make recommendations on this.
In June 2005, the state government, as directed by the high court, tasked Ramky Enviro Engineers at Pithampur near Indore, to rid the Union Carbide plant of the waste. The company deposited 346 tonnes of pesticide and other chemicals and 39 tonnes of lime sludge in a warehouse in the pesticide plant.
As recommended by the task force, the high court in October 2006 ordered that the 385 tonnes of waste be incinerated at the Ankleshwar plant of Bharuch Environmental Infrastructure Limited in Gujarat. After widespread opposition to the move, the Madhya Pradesh government moved the Supreme Court in August 2008. In October 2009 the task force decided to send the waste to Pithampur in the state instead of Ankleshwar.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court directed that the waste be incinerated in Pithampur and asked the high court to oversee the entire process.
However, due to protests in villages surrounding Pithampur , the Madhya Pradesh government wrote to the central government in August 2010 expressing its inability to send the waste.
The central government moved the Madhya Pradesh High Court in May 2011 seeking a direction that the waste be incinerated at a Nagpur facility of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. The high court asked the state government to do so.
Then, on a plea of the Vidarbha Environmental Action Group, the Mumbai High Court in July 2011 stayed its counterpart’s order.
Officials of the pollution control boards of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra met in February 2012 and decided that 346 tonnes of the waste would be incinerated at Pithampur.
In the meantime, a German company, GEZ, expressed interest in destroying the waste in Hamburg following which the central government moved the Supreme Court. The court directed the state government in April 2012 to send the waste to Germany, but later stayed this decision.
A Group of Ministers (GoM) also approved incineration of the waste in Germany. But this plan too had to be dropped due to opposition in that country. In October 2012, the GoM decided that the waste would be destroyed in Pithampur.
R.A. Khandelwal, commissioner, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, told IANS: “The Supreme Court in April 2014 ordered that 10 tonnes of waste be incinerated at Pithampur on a trial basis.” However, due to technical glitches in the incinerator, the waste has not been sent to Pithampur.
It’s a different matter that American courts have been moved for damages, but the question that now begs an answer is: If 346 tonnes of waste cannot be disposed off, what happens to the remaining 18,000 tonnes lying buried in the solar evaporation pond and elsewhere in the plant.