New Delhi: A 3 April fire at an inflammable toxic waste treatment plant in Ankleshwar in Gujarat, in the heart of India’s chemical belt, ended up being far more serious than it should have been because the facility was holding 100 times its capacity of waste, wasn’t equipped to handle highly toxic substances, didn’t have basic fire detection equipment or an on-site fire engine, and was manned by people who didn’t know the composition of the matter being incinerated—all issues that highlight gaps in industrial as well as regulatory efforts in waste management in the country.
“The facility is only designed and allowed to store 60 tonnes of incinerable waste. The facility, however, was holding 6,000 tonnes of toxic waste when it caught fire. They had not burnt it for many days,” said a senior Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) official, who did not wish to be identified.
The scene after a fire at an inflammable toxic waste treatment plant in Ankleshwar, Gujarat. The government now wants to cap the waste that can be held by such facilities at seven days of inventory
The facility is operated by Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Ltd (BEIL).
“This is a common facility and members pay to dump their wastes. It is difficult for us to say no to the members because industries can only store a limited amount on their premises. If we don’t take it, then they might be dumped illegally,” said Ashok Panjwani, director, BEIL. Panjwani did not deny the excessive storage but said he didn’t know the exact numbers. The CPCB official also said that a joint Central and state pollution control board team had warned the company about its inventory but Panjwani said he couldn’t be “100% sure of any warning sent by GPCB (Gujarat Pollution Control Board) or CPCB; I don’t know.”
The government now wants to cap the waste that can be held by all such facilities at seven days of inventory.
A March 2007 report by GTZ GmbH, a German entity that works in the area of sustainable development, compared the Ankleshwar facility and a few others with similar German facilities and found that BEIL’s facility was not equipped to handle highly toxic waste and that its emission standards were not what they were meant to be. According to the report, the facility also did not have any fire detectors in the storage area, where the recent fire started, nor an on-site fire brigade.
India generates an estimated 8 million tonnes (mt) of hazardous waste every year, of which a quarter is deemed incinerable, which means it has to be burnt and cannot be stored in a landfill. This is apart from nearly 48mt of municipal waste generated every year. Most treatment storage and disposal facilities, or TSDFs, are built as partnerships between the companies that generate hazardous wastes in that region. The government offers subsidies and incentives for the construction of these facilities.
The Supreme Court, in an October 2003 order, mandated that each state should have at least one such facility; however, some states are yet to have a TSDF.
In an effort to address this, CPCB amended guidelines allowing transportation of hazardous waste across state borders. For instance, Maharashtra agreed to accept waste from Goa, since the state did not generate enough waste to justify its own facility. However, many other states are reluctant to do so.
Gujarat is the third highest producer of hazardous waste in the country after Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Gujarat alone generates nearly 1.2mt per annum of this while Rajasthan and Maharashtra generate nearly 3.5mt and 1.4mt, respectively, every year.
According to a 2007 report by the Supreme Court monitoring committee on hazardous waste, there are 16 TSDFs in the country. CPCB officials say the country will need at least 50 by 2015.
The Ankleshwar TSDF run by BEIL has been in operation since 1998, receives waste from more than 314 industries and three industrial estates, and had incinerated 19,478 tonnes of toxic waste between 2004 and November 2007.
“We have seven or eight sheds where the incinerable wastes are stored. The fire started in one of the sheds, because of a leakage in one of the drums where the waste is stores. When we saw the smoke pouring out, our (safety) procedures were started, but within 15 minutes, it became uncontrollable. There were fireballs at least 30ft in the sky. Some tenders came here around 15 minutes after the fire started. We used water, we used foam extinguishers, but couldn’t control the fire,” said a BEIL executive who did not wish to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Rohit Prajapati, who works with the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), an activist organization in Vadodara, said: “When asked, the officials said that they didn’t know the composition of the waste that was burnt. Neither did they measure the amount of heavy metals let into the air.”
PSS said it had asked for information on GPCB’s inspections at the facility through the provisions of the Right to Information Act, but claimed it had been denied this. It has appealed this decision. GPCB officials were not available for comment.
“After the incident, the district collector and the deputy superintendent were also here. They sent out mobile units to check the pollution to nearby villages like Jeetali, along with environmental activists. But I think the smoke was too high to be damaging the villages. No environment damage was found,” claimed the BEIL executive.