Ankleshwar, Gujarat: Initial investigations into a fire at an inflammable toxic waste treatment plant in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, show that the facility’s operator had ignored notices and warnings issued a month earlier by state authorities. The district collector of Bharuch, where Ankleshwar is located, has decided to initiate criminal procedings against company officials.
A three-member committee, comprising an official of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, or GPCB, a sub-judicial magistrate and a factory inspector, set up immediately after the 3 April fire, has said in its report that it found irregularities at the facility run by Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Ltd, or Beil.
“The report has clear findings that Beil stored hazardous waste in much higher quantity (than permitted), dumped hazardous waste in a haphazard manner and did not have adequate fire or safety equipment to deal with such a situation,” said GPCB official V.R. Ghatge, who was part of the three-member panel.
GPCB and the factory inspector had in March issued a notice to Beil on its safety standards and high inventory. “It does not appear to have made any difference to Beil,” Ghatge said.
According to the GPCB official, the capacity allowed for Beil was 2.5 tonnes per hour and the firm could keep an inventory of 90 days. This means Beil could store solid toxic waste of up to 5,400 tonnes. Instead, it had kept 12,000 tonnes of solid toxic waste.
Bharuch district collector Arti Kanwar said local authorities would not take any “knee-jerk” action against the facility although they plan to initiate criminal litigation against company officials.
“The criminal proceedings will not be under the Indian Penal Code but under the Factories Act and Environment Protection Act. The provisions under these Acts involve imprisonment of up to five years and fine of up to Rs1 lakh. We are planning some more measures and will file more cases against the company in the near future,” she said.
Beil director Ashok Panjwani said he has not received any notice from the government but “we are prepared to answer any legal questions.” The firm has set up a five-member team to study reasons for the fire and steps it should take to ensure safety. “We will follow the instructions given by the government and try to change accordingly,” Panjwani said.
Regarding the immediate impact of the fire on the lives of people in the area, the collector said authorities had not found any unwarranted traces of toxicity in the region so far.
“We have monitored the area for air pollution or health hazards post fire. We did a door-to-door survey...in the villages surrounding the site and have not found any impact. We would periodically continue to monitor the situation,” Kanwar said.
Pradip Thaker, regional secretary of not-for-profit organization Human Welfare, Environment and Safety Association, or HWESA, disagreed. “An incinerator involves burning the toxic waste at a temperature of 1,200 degrees centigrade (Celsius) for safety. The fire reached a level of 400 degrees centigrade only. So, there is bound to be some toxic waste and heavy chemicals that would have gone into the air and it needs to be studied in detail.”
Thaker said that it rained within 24 hours of the fire and toxic particles might have settled on the farms in the vicinity. Moreover, over 150 water tankers were deployed to douse the fire. “The water was poured on the toxic substance. It has surely gone underground and needs to be looked at,” he said.
HWESA has been campaigning in the area against bringing solid waste from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal for incineration to Beil. “They cannot handle solid waste from the (local) industry. Imagine if something of this sort happened while handling Bhopal waste.”
The area, consisting of three main industrial clusters of Ankleshwar, Jhagadia and Panoli, houses over 700 industrial units that produce pharmaceuticals and chemicals for varied use across the globe.
At the industrial town of 200,000 citizens, nothing seemed to have changed. “There was too much excitement on the night of fire and a lot of worry about safety, but now it is business as usual,” said Ramnikbhai Kapadia, a shopkeeper on station road, adjacent to Gujarat Industrial Development Corp.’s industrial estate that houses a large number of chemical units.
But there are others, such as Ranjitbhai, who said they were lucky because of “favourable” winds. “The storage site of Beil was apparently holding more than 11,000 drums of toxic waste and the fire happened only in one of the sheds. As the wind direction was away from storage site and towards empty farms, a bigger disaster was averted,” he said, adding that the city may not be so lucky next time.
Kanwar said the government was not immediately looking at closing down the facility. “If we ask for closure, we would be encouraging industrial units to dump toxic waste (indiscriminately). We do not want that.”
It is illegal for industries to store more than 10 tonnes of toxic waste. They have to send the excess for incineration.
“I could not tell the industry that I would not take their waste and so I took it. I had kept concerned authorities informed of this situation,” Panjwani said. He also said that closing the incinerator was not a solution and neither was his company thinking about it. “It is not like closing an industrial unit. If I close down, there is no similar facility in the region. More than 500 units would therefore forced to close down. A fire is not the end of the world. We just need to learn from it for the future.”
Kamlesh Udani, director of J.B. Pharmaceuticals Ltd, which has a bulk drug unit in the area, said the incinerator must continue to operate. “There are some big companies in the area that have small incinerators but small units are completely dependent on this incinerator. You now need to ensure that safety is observed more strictly,” he said.