Fifteen years after the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy in Bhopal, India, the abandoned premises - now owned by the government - and the surrounding grounds continue to poison the residents of the area.

By Meena Menon

September 1999

Bhopal, India: The walls still carry murderous messages -- 'Hang Warren Anderson', written in dark letters outside the tomb-like Union Carbide factory 15 years after the world's worst industrial accident in this central Indian city.

The factory's solar evaporation ponds still contain waste, poisoning cattle that have died after drinking water from the ponds.

In March and April this year, two major fires broke out near the chemical storage area. Tonnes of toxic chemicals and waste tarry residues remain on the premises of the plant, now the property of the government.

More seriously, the tarry residue is contaminated with mercury from empty seal pots dumped in the waste, according to a source who wishes to remain anonymous.

The mercury-filled pots were part of the US-based transnational's 'Sevin' pesticide-manufacturing plant's chemical reactor, and crumbled from disuse. While the mercury was scooped up, the pots were carelessly dumped.

As a result, a proposal to use the tarry residues as fuel for cement kilns had to be abandoned -- mercury is dangerously volatile and one of the most toxic of chemicals.

Long-term exposure to mercury permanently damages the brain, kidneys and even the foetus, posing a serious threat to poor communities living around the plant. Already people in the slums have been warned not to drink water from some 200 shallow tubewells identified with a red board by the state government. However, since there's no other source of water, they drink from the tubewells. 'Where else can we get water,' said a resident of Atal Ayub Nagar, lugging water from a tubewell.

An estimated 10,000 people live in the shadow of the Union Carbide plant, in Atal Ayub, Annu Nagar, Nawab Nagar and New Arif Nagar. Multinational Monitor charges Carbide, which has a reputation of little regard for the environment or worker safety, of never having owned responsibility for the tragic gas leak in Bhopal on the night of 3 December 1984.

In the United States, Carbide's long involvement in the research and development of nuclear weapons, in the form of the Y-12 plant at Oak Bridge built in 1943, and in uranium milling and mining is plagued with problems of toxic waste disposal.

In 1977, a declassified Department of Energy report revealed that 2.4 million pounds of mercury had been released into the ground, water and air between 1950 and 1963, when the plant was still under Carbide management.

The waste disposal system of Carbide in Bhopal was highly suspect even before the disaster. Waste was dumped in open pits and later into solar evaporation ponds. Toxic effluents were discharged for many years into the open sewage drains near by.

The plastic lining of the solar evaporation ponds (to prevent seepage) was often taken away by indigent slum-dwellers who used it to cover the roofs of their houses. Attempts to landfill the ponds only increased the risk of soil and water contamination.

A report of the PHE (Public Health Engineering) department in Bhopal dated 28 October 1996 (which has been leaked recently) shows the ground water is contaminated with bacteria and there is a heavy presence of chemicals.

A press report to this effect was published in January 1988. Ten samples were collected from J P Nagar, Atal Ayub Agar, Arif Nagar, Chhola and Kainchi Chhola - all situated close to the Union Carbide factory - on 26 November 1996, and tested at the State Research Laboratory.

All samples were subjected to both bacteriological and chemical analysis. The COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) value in ground water is zero but the samples tested here had COD values between 45 mg/l and 98 mg/l as opposed to the WHO standard value of COD for natural water, which is 6 mg/l.

The report said that samples from tubewells in other parts of Bhopal were also examined but chemical contamination was found only in areas near the Carbide plant. Water from the tubewells in these areas were tested five years ago and even at that time, there was evidence of chemical contamination.

'It is established that this pollution is due to chemicals used in the Union Carbide factory that have proven to be extremely harmful for health. Therefore the use of this water for drinking must be stopped immediately.'

In April 1990, the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) sent samples to the Citizen's Environmental Laboratory, Boston, to analyse sediment from the waste-storage area abandoned by the company, surface soils near the plant and drinking water from the adjacent community.

High levels of toxic materials were found in the samples from the waste-storage area and another highly toxic substance, dichlorobenzene, was found in the drinking water. Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a group of cancer-causing agents, were found in the waste area, apart from phthlates which were detected in the surface soils and in the waste pond.

In 1985, a few months after the accident, the three large effluent ponds were already posing a threat to local cattle and people were complaining of water contamination.

The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan of survivors of the gas accident and the BGIA have repeatedly drawn the attention of authorities to the environmental damage caused by the Carbide plant. The reports of the government agencies remain inaccessible to the people who live without basic amenities.

V K Jain, chairperson of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, confirmed that the tarry residues at the plant, which has been taken over by the government, did indeed contain 'not negligible' quantities of mercury, but dismissed the charge that the factory was responsible for water pollution in the area.

He said that the COD could be high due to industrial and human waste -- the population of the area has swelled to 150,000. He said he has not seen the PHE report -- it could be 'bogus' and the samples collected from anywhere.

Despite the mountains of evidence, the state government is dragging its feet on a pollution clean-up. The poison clouds of gas from the Carbide plant are not its only toxic legacy. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Meena Menon is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.