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Toxic waste continues to plague Bhopal 24 years after the disaster

Toxic waste continues to plague Bhopal 24 years after the disaster
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 09 52 PM IST

Stunted childhood: Fareeda Bi with her sons, Hassan, left, and Nawab Mian, at their home in Arif Nagar, a slum on the outskirts of Bhopal. The boys are barely able to stand. Fareeda Bi is unsure of ex
Stunted childhood: Fareeda Bi with her sons, Hassan, left, and Nawab Mian, at their home in Arif Nagar, a slum on the outskirts of Bhopal. The boys are barely able to stand. Fareeda Bi is unsure of ex
Updated: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 09 52 PM IST
Bhopal: Hundreds of tonnes of waste still languish inside a tin-roofed warehouse in a corner of the old grounds of the Union Carbide pesticide factory here, nearly a quarter century after a poison gas leak killed thousands and turned this ancient city into a notorious symbol of industrial disaster.
The toxic remains have yet to be carted away. No one has examined to what extent, over more than two decades, they have seeped into the soil and water, except in desultory checks by a state environmental agency, which turned up pesticide residues in the neighbourhood wells far exceeding permissible levels.
Stunted childhood: Fareeda Bi with her sons, Hassan, left, and Nawab Mian, at their home in Arif Nagar, a slum on the outskirts of Bhopal. The boys are barely able to stand. Fareeda Bi is unsure of exactly what caused their ailment but blames the local water supply. (Photo: Ruth Fremson/NYT)
Nor has anyone bothered to address the concerns of those who have drunk that water and tended kitchen gardens on this soil and who now present ailments from cleft palates to mental retardation among their children as evidence of a second generation of Bhopal victims, though it is impossible to say with any certainty what is the source of the afflictions.
Why it has taken so long to deal with the disaster is an epic tale of the ineffectiveness and seeming apathy of India’s bureaucracy and of the government’s failure to make the factory owners do anything about the mess they left. But the question of who will pay for the clean-up of the 11-acre site has assumed new urgency in a country that today is increasingly keen to attract foreign investment.
It was here that on 3 December 1984, a tank inside the factory released 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas, killing those who inhaled it while they slept. At least 3,000 people were killed immediately. Thousands more may have died later from the after-effects, though the exact death toll remains unclear.
More than 500,000 people were declared to be affected by the gas and awarded compensation, an average of $550 (Rs23,700). Some victims say they have yet to receive any money. Efforts to extradite Warren Anderson, the chief executive of Union Carbide at the time, from the US continue, though apparently with little energy behind them.
Advocates for those who live near the site continue to hound the company and their government. They chain themselves to the Prime Minister’s residence one day and dog shareholder meetings on another, refusing to let Bhopal become the tragedy that India forgot. They insist that Dow Chemical Co., which bought Union Carbide in 2001, also bought its liabilities and should pay for the clean-up.
“Had the toxic waste been cleaned up, the contaminated groundwater would not have happened,” says Mira Shiva, a doctor who leads the Voluntary Health Association, one of many groups pressing for Dow to take responsibility for the clean-up. “Dow was the first crime. The second crime was government negligence.”
Dow, based in Michigan, says it bears no responsibility to clean up a mess it did not make. “As there was never any ownership, there is no responsibility and no liability—for the Bhopal tragedy or its aftermath,” Scot Wheeler, a company spokesman, said by email.
The government itself is now in the throes of a debate over who will pay—a debate that might have taken place behind closed doors were it not for a series of public information requests by advocates for Bhopal residents that turned up revealing government correspondence.
It showed that one arm of the government, the chemicals and petrochemicals ministry, entrusted with the clean-up of the site, has wanted Dow to put down a $25 million deposit toward the cost of remediation, while other senior officials warned that forcing Dow’s hand could endanger future investments in the country.
A senior government official, prohibited from speaking publicly on such a contentious issue, described the quandary. “Do you want $1 billion in investment, or do you want this sticky situation to continue?” the official said, calling it a “stalemate”.
The government is expected to make a final decision later this year.
Beyond who will pay for the clean-up here, the question is why 425 tonnes of hazardous waste—some local advocates allege there is a great deal more, buried in the factory grounds—remains here 24 years after the leak.
There are many answers. The company was allowed to dump the land on the government before it was cleaned up. Lawsuits by advocacy groups are still winding their way through the courts. And a network of often lethargic, seemingly apathetic government agencies do not always coordinate with one another.
The result is a wasteland in the city’s heart. The old factory grounds, frozen in time, are an overgrown 11-acre forest of corroded tanks and pipes buzzing with cicadas, where cattle graze and women forage for twigs to cook their evening meal.
Since the disaster, ill-considered decisions on the part of local residents have only compounded the problems and heightened their health risks. Just beyond the factory wall is a blue-black open pit. Once the repository of chemical sludge from the pesticide plant, it is now a pond where slum children and dogs dive on hot afternoons.
The slum rose up shortly after the gas leak. Poor people flocked here, seeking cheap land, and put up homes right up to the edge of the sludge pond. Once, the pond was sealed with concrete and plastic. But in the searing heat, the concrete cover eventually collapsed.
The first tests of groundwater began, inexplicably, 12 years after the gas leak. The state pollution control board turned up traces of pesticides, including endosulfan, lindane, trichlorobenzene and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT. Soil sediments were not tested. The water was never compared with water in other city neighbourhoods. The pollution board saw no cause for alarm.
Nevertheless, in 2004, complaints from area residents led the Supreme Court to order the state to supply clean drinking water to the people living around the factory. By then, nearly 20 years had gone by.
“It is a scandal that the hazardous wastes left behind by Union Carbide unattended for 20 years have now migrated below ground and contaminated the groundwater below the factory and in its neighbourhood,” wrote Claude Alvares, a monitor for India’s Supreme Court, who visited here in March 2005. He tasted the water from an area well. “I had to spit out everything,” he wrote in his report. The water “had an appalling chemical taste”.
Around the same time, under public pressure, state authorities finally scooped up the toxic waste that had lain in clumps around the factory grounds, and stored it inside the tin-roofed warehouse. The warehouse was padlocked only about four years ago.
The waste still stored on the site was supposed to be taken to an incinerator in neighbouring Gujarat, but the government has yet to find a contractor willing to pack it into small, transportable parcels. There have been delays in acquiring transport permits, too, with citizens groups raising new questions about the hazards of transporting the waste.
Ajay Vishoni, the state’s gas and health minister, said he was confident that none of the waste was hazardous anymore, nor had anyone proved to his satisfaction that it had ever caused the contamination of the groundwater. “There is hype,” he said.
In 2005, a state-financed study called for long-term epidemiological studies to determine the impact of contaminated drinking water, concluding that while the levels of toxic contaminants were not very high, water and soil contamination had caused an increase in respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments.
In the Shiv Nagar slum near the factory, there is a boy, Akash, who was born with an empty socket for a left eye. Now 6, he cannot see properly or speak.
His father, Shobha Ram, a maker of sweets who bought land here many years after the gas leak and built himself a two-room house, said the boy’s afflictions were caused by the hand-pumped well from where his family drew water on the edge of the sludge pond for years. He said it had not occurred to him that the water could be laced with pesticides.
“We knew the gas incident took place,” he said. “We never thought the contaminated water would come all the way to our house.”
The stories repeat themselves in the nearby slums. In Blue Moon colony, Muskan, a 2-year-old girl, cannot walk, speak or understand what is happening around her. Her father, Anwar, blames the water.
In Arif Nagar, Nawab and Hassan Mian, brothers who are 8 and 12, move through their house like newly hatched birds, barely able to stand. They have no control over their muscles. Their mother, Fareeda Bi, is unsure of exactly what caused their ailment, but she, too, blames the water.
“There are more children like this in the neighbourhood,” she said, “who cannot walk, who cannot see.”
To compound the tragedy, there is no way to know to what extent the water is to blame. The government suspended long-term public health studies many years ago.
©2008/the new york times
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 09 52 PM IST