New Internationalist

Dow’s toxic waste heads for Mumbai

Authorities want to burn tonnes of the toxic waste from Bhopal, which critics say is highly irresponsible © Jack Laurenson / BMA

Battle lines have been drawn in India in recent weeks for new clashes over the Bhopal disaster following reports from Indian media that highly toxic waste from Union Carbide is ‘headed for Mumbai’. India’s flagship current affairs magazine India Today has alleged that as a result of a ‘secretive and high-handed decision’, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has authorized the burning of hazardous toxic waste from Union Carbide at facilities in Mumbai, India’s largest city.

The Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, site of the 1984 disaster, is still heavily contaminated with tonnes of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, but some 346 tonnes of dumped waste have been recovered and stored elsewhere; for years most of it has awaited destruction. States including Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have previously disallowed authorities from incinerating the waste in their facilities on grounds of severe risk to public health and the environment.

The latest developments, from CPCB sources and as reported by India Today, are that the CPCB has decided to send an initial 10 metric tonnes of chemical waste to the Mumbai Waste Management Company for incineration at facilities in Taloja, a Mumbai suburb.

The ongoing issue with Bhopal’s toxic waste has led to renewed calls for the Dow Chemical company, Union Carbide’s new owner, to step in and take responsibility for their subsidiary’s pollutants.

In Taloja, environmentalists and the area’s residents are opposed to the waste being incinerated there and critics have warned that burning such material, which is highly carcinogenic and poisonous, would likely cause long-term health issues similar to those suffered in Bhopal today.

India Today quotes one particular expert: ‘The waste from Bhopal includes the hazardous halogen nitrate compound and chlorinated organic chain. Burning it could result in poisonous dioxin fumes that can result in cancer and deformities in future generations, besides respiratory and nervous system disorders.’

As the waste was being prepared for transportation to Mumbai last week, activists stepped up the offensive and the Bhopal Medical Appeal were joined by Greenpeace India in highlighting the irresponsible move by Indian authorities. In 2007 the Central Pollution Control Board was ordered by the Jabalpur High Court to ‘destroy’ 346 tonnes of stockpiled Union Carbide waste but since then, the CPCB has been routinely blocked by local environmental authorities in Indian states which have stated that the incineration of such material would be too dangerous. In the latest Bhopal waste drama the Maharashtra state government has stepped in to resist the CPCB’s desire to incinerate the material in Mumbai.  

Authorities in India have been routinely criticized for previous covert attempts to incinerate toxic waste from Bhopal in an unsafe manner. In 2008, the Indore environment minister Jairam Ramesh apologized to his people after it was revealed that 40 tonnes of toxic waste were secretly smuggled from the Union Carbide factory to an incinerator in Pithampur.

Recent coverage of the issue in India has also cited evidence that this transportation of Bhopal’s toxic waste is actually illegal under Indian law and the ‘National Hazardous Waste Management, Handling and Transportation Rules 2008’ state that such material must be destroyed at the ‘closest facility’’ Taloja, in Mumbai, is some 670 kilometres from Bhopal.

As Indian authorities and state governments, as well as Union Carbide and their new owners Dow Chemical, continue to bicker over who is liable and what is to be done with the toxic waste, much of Bhopal still remains heavily contaminated with no effective clean-up in site.

Last week, in response to developments, The Bhopal Medical Appeal said: ‘This haste to get rid of the toxic waste is leading to some very hasty – and quite possibly ill-informed – decisions; it risks putting yet more lives at risk from Union Carbide’s toxic chemicals.’

The BMA went on to state that although the government was attempting to dispose of stockpiled waste, nobody has yet cleaned up the water and soil around the Union Carbide complex.

‘The authorities seem desperate to get rid of this toxic waste that’s stored above ground but, in fact, the real mess in Bhopal is all within the ground. It seems they’re doing this because these barrels of chemicals are such a highly visible manifestation of the ongoing toxic disaster in Bhopal. But it’s not the 300-odd tonnes of toxic material sat in warehouses that is poisoning the local population; it’s the dumped waste that has contaminated the area and, most damagingly, the drinking water for many thousands of people.’

Environmental activists and Mumbai residents have pledged to oppose any attempt to dispose of Bhopal’s waste in a negligent manner, but critics have warned that Indian authorities will simply bypass legislation and regulation to dispose of the waste secretively at a later date.

Add your voice to the growing campaign for justice in Bhopal by supporting the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

Reproduced with permission from the Bhopal Medical Appeal website.

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