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Undisposed toxic waste at Bhopal disaster site

  • Published
    1st Aug, 2023
Context

According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) submitted to the National Green tribunal (NGT), 337 metric tonnes (MT) of hazardous waste stored on the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) premises — the site of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy is yet to be disposed of.

Points from the Report:

  • According to the CPCB report, an oversight committee meeting chaired by Union Environment Minister has recommended the Department of Expenditure to release 126 crore to the M.P. government for remediation and disposal of the 337 MT of toxic waste.
  • It also noted that as per a 2009 joint study by NEERI and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), the UCIL site contains about 1 million tonnes of contaminated soil, around 1 tonnes of mercury spillage, and nearly 150 tonnes of underground dumps.
  • In 2022, an NGT-appointed committee had found the “possibility of contamination of soil” and suggested “speedy disposal” of the waste.
About Bhopal Gas Tragedy:
  • Post-midnight on December 3, 1984, Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) (Chemical formula- CH3NCO or C2H3NO)leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals), an MNC, in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal.
    • It is estimated that about 40 tonnes of gas and other chemicals leakedfrom the Union Carbide factory.

Methyl isocyanate is extremely toxic gas and if its concentration in the air touches 21ppm (parts per million), it can cause death within minutes of inhaling the gas.

  • It is one of the worst chemical disasters globally and still continues to have its ill effects on the people of the affected areas.
  • After the tragedy, the government of India enacted a Public Liability Insurance Act (1991),making it mandatory for industries to get insurance the premium for this insurance would contribute to an Environment Relief Fund to provide compensation to victims of a Bhopal-like disaster.

What Hazardous Waste means?

  • “Hazardous waste" means any waste which by reason of any of its physical, chemical, reactive, toxic, flammable, explosive or corrosive characteristics causes danger or is likely to cause danger to health or environment, whether alone or when in contact with other wastes or substances

Hazardous Waste Management:

Stockholm Convention:

  • The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from the effects of Persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
  • The Convention entered into force on May 17, 2004.
  • The Stockholm Convention, which currently regulates 29 POPs, requires parties to adopt a range of control measures to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate the release of POPs.
  • Hazardous-waste management, is the collection, treatment, and disposal of waste material that, when improperly handled, can cause substantial harm to human health and safety or to the environment.
  • Hazardous wastes can take the form of solids, liquids, sludges, or contained gases, and they are generated primarily by chemical production, manufacturing, and other industrial activities.
  • They may cause damage during inadequate storage, transportation, treatment, or disposal operations.
  • Improper hazardous-waste storage or disposal frequently contaminates surface water and groundwater supplies as harmful water pollution and can also be a source of dangerous land pollution.
  • People living in homes built near old and abandoned waste disposal sites may be in a particularly vulnerable position.
  • In an effort to remedy existing problems and to prevent future harm from hazardous wastes, governments closely regulate the practice of hazardous-waste management.

What are the various reasons behind such leaks?

  • Poor Waste Management:Inadequate disposal of industrial waste can lead to the release of neurotoxic gases. For example, dumping toxic chemicals into sewers can cause dangerous chemical reactions, as seen in the Ludhiana gas leak incident.  
  • Inadequate Maintenance of Industrial Plants:Poorly maintained plants and storage facilities can lead to gas leaks. The Bhopal gas tragedy is an example of a catastrophic gas leak caused by inadequate safety measures and maintenance at a chemical plant.  
  • Lack of Regulation and Monitoring:Weak enforcement of environmental regulations and insufficient monitoring of industries and government authorities can result in hazardous gasleaks. Insufficient oversight allows industries to operate without proper safety measures, thereby increasing the risk of gas leaks.  
  • Overcrowded Urban Areas:The coexistence of factories and residential buildings in densely populated areas increases the risk of exposure to harmful gases. Inadequate urban planning and zoning regulations contribute to this problem, as seen in the Vizag gas leak incident.  
  • Infrastructure Failures:Damaged or poorly maintained pipelines and storage tanks can lead to gas leaks. In some cases, ageing infrastructure and lack of proper maintenance can result in hazardous situations.  

Laws governing Hazardous Wastes:

The Indian government has enacted various regulations to prevent neurotoxic gas leaks, such as 

  • Environmental Laws: The government enforces environmental laws like the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, to regulate the discharge of pollutants and protect the environment.
  • Hazardous Waste Management: The Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016, govern the safe handling, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste to minimize the risk of toxic gas leaks.
  • Factory Licensing and Inspection: Factories handling hazardous chemicals must obtain licenses under the Factories Act, 1948,. Further, they are subject to regular inspections to ensure compliance with safety standards and regulations.
  • Public Liability Insurance Act: The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, requires industries dealing with hazardous substances to have insurance policies, providing compensation in case of accidents, including neurotoxic gas leaks.
  • Chemical Accidents Rules: The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989, and the Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996, outline safety requirements and emergency response plans for industries handling hazardous chemicals.
  • NDMA guidelines: The NDMA has established clear guidelines on Chemical Disaster Management for various authorities in India. These guidelines promote a proactive and multi-disciplinary approach to chemical disaster preparedness and response.
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