Flight of the toxic and soiled

By Sangeetha Rajeesh

'Technically speaking, it’s not too difficult… but it is the name of ‘Bhopal’ and the memory of the catastrophe surrounding events on the night of 2-3 December 1984 that are creating tension and causing fear,' observed Hans Stehling, spokesperson for Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH – the German state agency. He continued to explain that the 'safe and secure' transportation of the contaminated soil [from before the gas leak accident] in airtight containers will be according to UN International standards and that once the package receives such certification; it would be flown to Europe.

Disposing toxic pesticides is usual business for GIZ

Incineration plants can be found throughout Europe, and Germany has about 19 high security plants that can do the job. GIZ has been involved in the procuring and disposal of obsolete pesticide waste for over 20 years and is well-equipped to handle the situation in India. “Sustainable Development is the target of GIZ and ‘security’ – the key word,” Stehling reassured, 'and the agency has done similar kind of disposals for Tanzania, Mozambique, Nepal, Mexico and some other countries.'

'Usually, pesticides come to a country and sometimes they remain unused. When the storage is not handled according to good standards, there are leakages, and that’s when GIZ is called in to dispose of such waste,' Stehling said explaining GIZ’s role. The agency’s offer to dispose of the contaminated soil is in keeping with the Basel Convention controlling trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, designed to prevent their transfer from developed to less developed countries. The convention calls for toxic waste to be shipped to another country in cases where the technology to dispose of it properly is lacking at the local level.

Worries over contaminated soil from Bhopal

While responding to a question on why this particular project from India is receiving so much attention in India and Germany, Stehling said that it is only because people are not aware that the contaminated soil is from before the accident in Bhopal and that the approximate weight of 350 MT contaminated soil in question is already packed and stored in a warehouse on the site premises.

Wolfgang A Schimpf is Project Officer – chemical safety from the Rural Development and Agriculture Department of the GIZ and he was one of the scientists to visit the Bhopal warehouse on a preliminarily visit. This is what he had to say from firsthand experience. 'The toxic waste was already packed in synthetic bags of about 3,500 in number and about 120 litres each when we arrived at the warehouse. They were leaking and rotting, and needed to be disposed off without much delay.' Schimpf goes on to explain that the bags are not good enough for transportation and will therefore be repacked by GIZ.  

Speaking of the precautions that will be taken while examining and packing the pesticide waste, Wolfgang informed that face masks, filters, overalls, shoes and protective gear will be used and all solid material will be transferred into polyethylene (plastic) drums that will have a liner. 'The airtight containers will be airlifted to Europe and nobody will open the drums; they will go directly to the incinerators in Germany and other places as decided upon in the contract still in discussion,' he added.

A team of six chemical waste disposal experts from GIZ will be in Bhopal to do the testing and packing at part of the process. 'This will be the first stage and we will also need to employ local support; we will train them on all safety measures and techniques'. 

No risk to environment or people

'The 350 MT of pesticide contaminated soil from the Bhopal warehouse is not harmful at all!' reassures Schimpf who has been a chemical waste disposal scientist for 25 years now, 'It contains pesticide residue and metal deposits like lead, tin and mercury but is definitely of no risk to the environment or the people in India or abroad because it is not from the accident site but from the area.' 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas that leaked into the atmosphere caused the worst environment disaster in India but traces of the gas can never be found again, said Schimpf, because it is highly volatile and disappears at temperatures above 39 degrees. 

Environmental and Bhopal activists in India claim that the contaminated soil has poisoned groundwater, however, Schimpf states that it is possible only if the factory and warehouse area was flooded. 'I have personally examined the contaminated material and there was no indication that the soil was wet,' he confirms, adding that the storage area was clean and safe and that the risk is not from the 350 MT to be airlifted.

Indian cabinet approves GIZ offer

GIZ has offered to remove the waste in a year at a cost of £3.5 million i.e. close to Rs 25 crore, and the cabinet has approved the same. The total cost of soil decontamination has been estimated at somewhere between Rs 78 crore and Rs 117 crore by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in India. 'We are told there are 25,000 to 50,000 tonnes of toxic waste on the premises and I have seen literature about this, but we are contracted for just the 350 MT disposals,' Schimpf informed.

The Indian cabinet’s approval of the proposal marks a milestone in the nearly three-decade wait to clean the 32-acre site housing remnants of the toxic pesticides left by the company after the industrial disaster. The ball is now with the Madhya Pradesh state government, which is yet to sign a contract with GIZ.

Once an agreement is reached, Hans Stehling said that GIZ will open a tender in Europe and identify the best deal to incinerate the waste. Based on the UN's comprehensive regulations for the safe and responsible disposal of contaminated waste, a timeframe of one year is planned for the project. 'Once the soil has been adequately protected, transportation could commence at the start of 2013 at the earliest,' he added. 'This waste has been a burden for the Indian government and the decision to dispose of it is the best one to make,' Schimpf expressed. 

Sangeetha Rajeesh is an independent development & environment journalist
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