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India's Supreme Court Panel Cracks Down on Hazardous Waste

Published by MAC on 2004-11-19

India's Supreme Court Panel Cracks Down on Hazardous Waste

By Frederick Noronha

Environmental News Service (ENS)

November 19, 2004

NEW DELHI, India - One year after it was established, an official high- level committee has cautioned the planet's second most populous country that it is facing a difficult challenge from hazardous wastes.

India's Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, set up in November 2003 by the high court, said it had been "pursuing certain serious and chronic situations" relating to the management of hazardous wastes.

Implementation of the court's orders on treating hazardous wastes are "still far from satisfactory in most states," said the panel, referring to a judgement of the Supreme Court handed down on October 14, 2003.

It pointed to the cases in India's capital city Delhi, and the state of Kerala, saying it had pulled up officials and recommended that some be hauled up for contempt of court.

The Committee detailed a long list of concerns, and said it had forced industrial units to shut down because they had committed violations of hazardous waste laws.

From its report, made available to the media here, it becomes clear that the situation is grave. Non- complying factories had to be closed, in western India some 75 factory units were found to be discharging highly acidic untreated effluent, and groundwater was found to be polluted by toxic effluents.

Tackling the problem of contaminated ground- water in the western state of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in central India, the panel convinced the Supreme Court to direct that water be supplied to affected villagers.

Relying on this court order, the Committee also directed industrial plants in Kerala also to begin supplying water to villagers who have nothing but contaminated water to drink.

For example, Hindustan Coca-Cola, the Indian subsidiary of the multi-national company Coca- Cola, has been directed to supply drinking water to villagers in its immediate neighborhood affected by its operations of waste disposal and ground water withdrawal. So have other industrial units like Binani Zinc, Kerala Mines and Minerals, and Kerala Newsprint etc," the Committee said a statement.

The Committee also pointed out that hazardous wastes have been imported into India in violation of the Supreme Court's orders and, in some cases, are behing held in the custody of ports and container depots.

For the first time since the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was ratifieded by India in 1992, the Monitoring Committee said it has initiated return of hazardous wastes that have been wrongly imported into India.

It has sent back zinc waste imported from Bangladesh, directed the return of PCB contaminated old transformer components to Germany, and oversaw the return of a container full of garbage back to Ireland.

The Committee promised to ensure online access for the public to effluent and emission data from large industrial units, said a report by chairman Dr. Gopalkrishnan Thyagarajan made available to ENS here.

This committee was set up in November 2003. It came to monitor the implementation of several directions contained in a Supreme Court order on the issue of hazardous wastes.

It is headed by Dr. Thyagarajan, former director of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research. Other members include Dr. S. Devotta, director, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute; Dr. S. Sivaram Director, National Chemical Laboratory; Dr. M.O. Garg, director, Indian Institute of Petroleum; Dr. V Rajagopalan, chairman, Central Pollution Control Board; Dr. S.P. Mehrotra, director, National Metallurgical Laboratory; Dr. J.S. Yadav, director, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology; Dr. D.B. Boralkar, member secretary, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board; and Mr. K.V. Bhanujan, chairman, Gujarat Pollution Control Board.

Dr. Narendra Hosabettu, director of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, is the Member Secretary of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. Dr. Claude Alvares, director of the Goa Foundation, is the lone environmentalist included on the panel.

Initially, the Committee said it had called on India's state level pollution control boards, and asked them to make detailed presentations on their efforts to comply with the Supreme Court ruling on hazardous wastes.

In January 2004 at a sitting in Mumbai, India's commercial and industrial capital, the Committee heard the chairpersons and member secretaries of the pollution control boards of five states that, taken together, generate more than 80 percent of the country's hazardous wastes - Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

In subsequent meetings elsewhere around India, officials of pollution control boards from other states were asked to report to the Committee on steps they had taken to implement the Supreme Court's directions.

The Committee said it "had not hesitated" to demand drastic action in cases of noncompliance.

For instance, the committee directed the Delhi Pollution Control Board to implement the court's direction for closure of all unauthorized hazardous waste generating units in the first week of July. A total of 957 industrial units were closed for a period of one month and they were only reopened after they had been issued the necessary authorizations from pollution control authorities.

In Kerala, in south India, a total of 195 industrial units, including 32 major industries, were issued specific directions for closure in August. These units are the ones the Committee said ought to have been closed in November 2003 by the Kerala Pollution Control Board.

The Committee expressed concern over factories such as Hindustan Insecticide Ltd. and Travancore Titanium Products Ltd. It said Travancore has been functioning for several years without even an effluent treatment plant and has been discharging untreated wastes directly into the sea.

The Committee suggested these plants either "go for closure or mend their ways and production systems entirely."

In Maharashtra, western India, the Committee pointed to Tarapur and discovered that 75 factories were discharging highly aidic untreated effluent. The panel demanded that all units be shut down within 24 hours. Units can only be reopened after they had come up with a bank guarantee of Rs.25,000 each which would stand forfeited for the entire group if they ever again to fall below pH 5.

In the case of Hema Chemicals in Vadodara, Gujarat, some 77,000 tons of toxic hexavalent chromium wastes, were dumped in the city by the unit. The Committee directed the state government to have the contamination surveyed by an independent body, to ensure health monitoring of the citizens in the vicinity, and to charge the unit for the remediation and disposal of the wastes.

Several hundred tons of arsenic contaminated wastes in the state of Goa drew an order from the Committee directing the owner of these wastes, Zuari Industries, to have them mixed with concrete and safely entombed in hermit storage on its own premises. The company received a stiff fine for disregarding the directions of the Supreme Court and for not taking steps to encapsulate the waste earlier.

The hermit storage has now been completed, the committee reported. Since the work of entombing was done with exemplary efficiency, earnestness and professionalism, the committee said it is considering review of the fine imposed.

In the case of the mercury pollution caused by Hindustan Lever Ltd. at its thermometer manufacturing plant at Kodaikanal, the committee directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to take several actions for rehabilitation of the site and victims "genuinely affected" by mercury poisoning.

In Gujarat, the committee said it was "shocked to find" Aventis Pharma, a multinational company, discharging highly toxic hazardous wastes into agricultural areas, through a contractor.

The committee said it had taken up the issue of non-functioning common effluent treatment plants in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and more recently, Tamil Nadu.

"These common effluent treatment plants are themselves covered by the Hazardous Waste Rules as they generate large volumes of hazardous sludge, but very often such hazardous waste is not to be found in the premises as most of it has gone together with the effluent into the environment."

The panel said it was giving plants a "specific time- bound period" during which to conform to India's Environment Protection Act norms.

Hazardous waste dumps were cleared in Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal after the committee insisted on time-bound physical removal of hazardous wastes dumped in "several areas" of the country.

It said more than 100 million rupees ($2.2 billion) had been spent already by industrialists in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal for removal and safe disposal of hazardous wastes which had been "discharged over the years" in the open environment and for disposal of these in secured landfills in these states. This work is continuing, it noted.

In Maharashtra in western India, a fairly industrialized state, the Committee said, "hazardous wastes were found discharged in the open spaces and outside the industrial estates of Ambarnath, Badlapur, Patalganga, Roha, Taloja, TTC, Dombivli and Mahad.

These wastes, it said, "were being lifted under time- bound actions for delivery into secured landfills." The committee warned it would make "surprise visits" to check whether this was done or not.

It ordered the Tarapur Industries Association having to deposit funds for construction of a secured landfill and for a common effluent treatment plant. If this is not done, the Committee threatened, it would shut down the entire Tarapur industrial area.

From this committee's work, a number of problems were officially confirmed such as the pollution of the Daman Ganga river.

This committee said it would "listen to a presentation by Greenpeace International on the state of the 20 year old hazardous wastes at the former Union Carbide plant in Bhopal."

Bhopal was the site of the worst industrial disaster anywhere in the world, when a Union Carbide factory leaked deadly gas in 1984, killing thousands of people in the central Indian city of Bhopal.

It also intends to take up the contamination of Patancheru-Bollaram, and several other areas contaminated with arsenic, mercury and chromium wastes and to propose practical agendas for the rehabilitation and revival of the affected groundwater aquifers.

The Committee has, relying on the Supreme Court judgement dated October 14, 2003, begun to set up Local Area Environment Committees comprising Pollution Control Board officials, industry representatives and nongovernmental organizations."

Such small committees would continue to monitor to determine whether the court orders were implemented and "restore some faith of civil society in the implementation of the Supreme Court Order."

The Committee reminded all factory operators that, "All industrial units involved in the handling of hazardous chemicals and hazardous wastes are now required, without exception, to put up a board both in English and the local language outside their factory gates, easily accessible to the public, disclosing the quantities of air emissions, water effluents and hazardous wastes generated by them and which are authorized by the pollution control board under the various environment laws."

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