July 7, 2008 NYT

Decades Later, Toxic Sludge Torments Bhopal

Hundreds of tons 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 neighborhood wells far exceeding permissible levels.

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 a wide range of ailments, including cleft palates and 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 Indiafs bureaucracy and of the governmentfs failure to make the factory owners do anything about the mess they left. But the question of who will pay for the cleanup 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 Dec. 3, 1984, a tank inside the factory released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, killing those who inhaled it while they slept. At the time, it was called the worldfs worst industrial accident. At least 3,000 people were killed immediately. Thousands more may have died later from the aftereffects, 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. Some victims say they have yet to receive any money. Efforts to extradite Warren M. Anderson, the chief executive of Union Carbide at the time, from the United States 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 ministerfs residence one day and dog shareholder meetings on another, refusing to let Bhopal become the tragedy that India forgot. They insist that Dow Chemical Company, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, also bought its liabilities and should pay for the cleanup.

gHad the toxic waste been cleaned up, the contaminated groundwater would not have happened,h says Mira Shiva, a doctor who heads the Voluntary Health Association, one of many groups pressing for Dow to take responsibility for the cleanup. gDow was the first crime. The second crime was government negligence.h

Dow, based in Michigan, says it bears no responsibility to clean up a mess it did not make. gAs there was never any ownership, there is no responsibility and no liability ? for the Bhopal tragedy or its aftermath,h Scot Wheeler, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Mr. Wheeler pointed out that the former factory property, along with the waste it contained, had been turned over to the Madhya Pradesh State government in June 1998, and that gfor whatever reason most of us do not know or fully understand, the site remains unremediated.h

He went on to say that Dow could not finance remediation efforts, even if it wanted to, because it could potentially open up the company to further liabilities.

In a letter to the Indian ambassador to the United States in 2006, the Dow chairman, Andrew N. Liveris, sought assurance from the government that it would not be held liable for the mess on the old factory site, gin your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.h

The claims have divided the government itself. It 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 cleanup 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 Dowfs hand could endanger future investments in the country.

A senior government official, prohibited from speaking publicly on such a contentious issue, described the quandary. gDo you want $1 billion in investment, or do you want this sticky situation to continue?h 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 cleanup here, the question is why 425 tons of hazardous waste ? some local advocates allege there is a great deal more, buried in the factory grounds ? remain 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 cityfs 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. Its banks are an open toilet. In the rainy season, it overflows through the slumfs muddy alleys.

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 DDT. Soil sediments were not tested. The water was never compared with water in other city neighborhoods. The pollution board saw no cause for alarm.

Nevertheless, in 2004, complaints from 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.

gIt 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 neighborhood,h wrote Claude Alvares, a monitor for Indiafs Supreme Court, who visited here in March 2005.

He tasted the water from one well. gI had to spit out everything,h he wrote in his report. The water ghad an appalling chemical taste.h Neighborhood women brought out their utensils to show how the water had corroded them.

As his report went on to point out, the government was long ago made aware of the likelihood of contamination. A government research center warned more than 10 years ago that, if left untreated, the toxic residue on the factory grounds would seep into the soil and water.

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 was supposed to be taken to an incinerator in neighboring 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 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. gThere is hype,h 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 about half a mile from 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. He is a cheerful child who plays in the lanes near his house.

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 boyfs 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.

gWe knew the gas incident took place,h he said. gWe never thought the contaminated water would come all the way to our house.h

The stories repeat themselves in the nearby slums. In Blue Moon, 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.

gThere are more children like this in the neighborhood,h she said, gwho cannot walk, who cannot see.h

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.

Toxic Waste Plagues Bhopal


Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Hundreds of tons of waste still languish on the old grounds of the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, nearly a quarter-century after a poison gas leak killed thousands and turned this ancient city into a notorious symbol of industrial disaster. 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 swim on hot afternoons. It has only heightened health risks for residents. @@

The old factory grounds, frozen in time, are an overgrown 11-acre forest of corroded tanks and pipes. The toxic remains have yet to be carted away. At least 3,000 people were killed on Dec. 3, 1984, after a tank inside the factory released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, killing those who inhaled it while they slept. Thousands more may have died later from the aftereffects, though the exact death toll remains unclear.

A guard on duty in the remains of the Union Carbide plant. No one has examined to what extent, over more than two decades, the toxic remains have seeped into the soil and water, except in desultory checks by a state environmental agency, which turned up pesticide residues in the neighborhood wells far exceeding permissible levels.

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, like this young girl, filling buckets fed from a government-provided tank. By then, nearly 20 years had gone by, with residents of the nearby slum drinking contaminated water, with often disastrous results on their health.

August 8, 2008 bhopal.net@

Bhopal celebrates historic victory after 172 day campaign


Bhopal survivor organisations today celebrated victory after the Government of India announced that it will set up an Empowered Commission on Bhopal, and take legal action on the civil and criminal liabilities of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. The announcement was made today by Mr. Ram Vilas Paswan, Minister of Chemicals & Fertilisesr, at the Bhopal protest site at Jantar Mantar. Survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster and people affected by water contamination near Union Carbide's factory Bhopal have been on strike in New Delhi for the last 130 days.

Bhopal survivors said that they were happy that the Commission would be empowered to allocate resources to different rehabilitation schemes or research projects, issue tenders, identify implementing Central or State Government agencies and change the agencies if their work is unsatisfactory. Although, the extent of funds for the Commission has not been revealed the Bhopal organizations have been assured that funds will not be a problem as the Government is committed to the Commission. The Bhopal organizations have also been assured that the Commission's scope would include environmental, social, economic and medical rehabilitation.

The survivorsf organizations expect the Commission to be set up in the next two months. They said that the Commission will also take up the matter of disposal of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste that were recklessly dumped by the factory management.The organizations expressed satisfaction that in response to their demands the government will now appoint a senior lawyer to argue the case for compensation from Dow Chemical for environmental and consequent health damages. "We expect the Government to go hammer and tongs after Dow Chemical, now that the law ministry has indicated that Union Carbide's civil liabilities can be passed on to Dow," the organisations said.

On the demands for deregistering the illegally registered pesticides of Dow Chemical, and revocation of approval given to Reliance for purchase of Union Carbide's Unipol technology, the Bhopalis have decided to approach the Court. The organizations expressed satisfaction that the Government has decided that no approvals will be given to any Indian agency to purchase Union Carbide's technology in India in future.

"We have won our demands only after facing undue harassment at the hands of the Government and Delhi Police," the three organisations said. After the month-long walk and 70-day dharna in Delhi by Bhopalis failed to evoke any response from the Government, 9 Bhopalis launched an indefinite fast lasting 21 days. More than 800 people from at least 10 countries joined them in solidarity by fasting for a day or longer. Diane Wilson, a noted peace and environmental activist from the US, award-winning author of Animal's People Indra Sinha and an environmental activist from Chennai joined the Bhopalis in their indefinite fast.

International support for the campaign has been massive. Nearly 6000 faxes were sent by supporters to the Prime Minister's office during the campaign. Meanwhile, NRI and other supporters kept the pressure up by demonstrating outside Indian embassies and calling key Indian politicians over phone. Sixteen US congresspersons, and more than 80 British Members of Parliaments added their voice in support of the Bhopalis' demands, urging the Prime Minister to meet the demands and hold Dow Chemical accountable for the ongoing disaster in Bhopal.

Bhopal's Gen Next has been at the core of the public actions targeting the Government. Bhopali children not only sent letters written in blood to the PM, but also chained themselves to the Prime Minister's house and launched a campaign urging school children to send a heart to the Prime Minister. In July, 22 Bhopalis were arrested for protesting outside the Prime Minister's Office and jailed in Tihar for more than 10 days.

The organisations thanked Mr. Paswan for his consistent support over the years, and expressed hope that the Minister will provide the necessary support for the Empowered Commission to begin functioning at the earliest.

Rashida Bee, Champa Devi Shukla
Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh

Syed M Irfan
Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha

Rachna Dhingra, Satinath Sarangi
Bhopal Group for Information and Action

For more information, contact: Rachna Dhingra, 9717516003

Posted by tim at 01:48 PM | Comments (0)

August 08, 2008@@bhopal.net@

Historic statement by the Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers

The following statement finally represents a full response to the 172 day 'Walk Your Talk' campaign begun by Bhopalis on February 20th, 2008. The object of the campaign - the longest sustained campaign by the Bhopalis yet - was fulfillment of a set of clear demands. The following statement achieves this.

Statement to be made by the Hon'ble Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers and Steel on 8th August, 2008 at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi before the representatives of Bhopal Gas Victims.

The Group of Ministers (GoM) constituted to oversee the matters related to Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster, in its meeting held on 11th June, 2008, had taken certain important decisions. Based on these decisions, the following action has been/is being taken by the Government.

(i) Plan of Action for rehabilitation if Bhopal Gas Victims

The government of M.P. has submitted a Memorandum on the Plan of Action for the rehabilitation of the gas victims and their families, with estimates amounting to Rs. 982.75 crore. The Department of C&PCiDepartment of Chemicals and Petrochemicalsj has forwarded the Action Plan to the Planning Commission for their comments and would thereafter be placed before the GoM, for further necessary action.

(ii) Declaration of remaining 20 wards of Bhopal as ' gas affected'

The request of the Govt. of M.P. for declaring the remaining 20 wards of Bhopal as Gas affected was not agreed to by the GoM. However, the GoM decided that the Government of M.P. may take an appropriate decision to allow free treatment and availability of medicines to the people of the 20 unaffected wards, in the Government Hospitals, without prejudice to the benefits and entitlements of the recognized gas victims in 36 'gas affected' wards.

(iii) Setting up of an Empowered Commission for rehabilitation of Bhopal Gas Victims:

The Gom decided that the Department of C&PC would prepare a Draft Proposal on the Terms of Reference , modalities, functions, powers, headquarters and other related requirements for setting up of the proposed Empowered Commission. A draft Resolution/ Executive Order, after approval of the Minister of C&F and S and the Chairman of the GoM, has been circulated to the Ministries/ Departments concerned of the Government of India and the Government of M.P., for comments/ views.

(iv) Continuation of Medical Research by ICMR

The ICMR should resume the research work which was stopped in the year 1994 and give its recommendations for the right line of treatment for different medical problems faced by the gas victims and their families. the Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has been requested to take further necessary action.

(v) Application of the Deptt. of C&PC filed in the High Court of M.P. in W.P. No. 2802 of 2004 (Alok Pratap Singh vs Union of India & Others)

The Department of C&PC would not withdraw its application filed in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh requesting the Court to direct Respondents No. 4 to 6, in the P.I.L filed in W.P. No. 2802 of 2004, to deposit Rs. 100 crore as advance for environmental remediation of the former UCIL plant site at Bhopal. The outcome of the matter pending before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh may be awaited in this regard.

(vi) Offer of Sh. Ratan Tata to set up Site Remediation Fund to clean UCIL Plant site

The offer of Shri Ratan Tata is not acceptable in its current form as it is a conditional offer to absolve Dow Chemicals Company from the liability for environmental remediation of the former UCIL plant site at Bhopal

(vii) Extradition of Warren Anderson

The legal pursuit for the extradition n of Warren Anderson (CEO of UCC) may be expedited by the MEA with the US Authorities

(viii) Cancellation of Registration of Pesticides of Dow obtained by payment of bribes

The CBI has been directed to expediate its report on the investigations into the alleged payment of bribes to the officials of Ministry of Agriculture by Dow for obtaining the registration of four pesticides, including Dursban

On february 13, 2007, Dow Chemical Co was fined us $325,000 by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (sec) on bribery charges against one of its Indian subsidiaries, De-Nocil. Dow wholly owns De-Nocil, which was rechristened Dow AgroSciences India Pvt Ltd on January 13, 2005. According to sec, De-Nocil was found guilty of making improper payments of us $200,000 to officials in India in 1996-2001 through contractors and unrelated companies.

Dow, the top us chemical maker, with annual sales of us $49 billion, paid the fine for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, without admitting or denying wrongdoing, sec said.
Dow also denied knowledge or approval for these payments.

De-Nocil was tying to circumvent the registration process for three pesticides Pride (NI-25), Nurelle-D, and Dursban. First, nearly $32,000 was paid in two instalments to a senior official of the Central Insecticides Board (cib), the agency responsible for registering and monitoring pesticides.

(ix) Environmental Remediation of the Former UCIL Plant site at Bhopal

The Government of India and the Government of M.P. may go ahead with the implimentation of the Roadmap for the environmental remediation of the former UCIL Plant site at Bhopal

(x) Review of approval of FTC between Reliance and Dow Global Technologies Inc.

As the representative of the concerned Ministry was not present for the meeting of the GoM, therefore, the views of the Minsitry were not available for the GoM to take a holistic view in the matter related to approval of FTC. The GoM deferred a decision on the issue.