Union Carbide's Bhopal plant was a polluter long before the 1984 gas leak, according to scientific reports presented to the Group of Ministers looking into the issue.

“Much of the hazardous residues, including the tarry residue, and much of the contaminated soil may pre-date the gas leak on 2/3.12.1984,” says the GoM's report, citing presentations made by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI). “This raises the issue that the Bhopal plant as a polluter and cause of environmental hazards even before the gas leak and the gas leak only added to the pollution and environmental hazards.”

However, the government has promised to consult scientists and NGOs before accepting these studies, which claim that the soil and most of the groundwater in the areas surrounding the plant site are not contaminated.

Peer review

The Union Cabinet on Thursday accepted the GoM recommendation that reports prepared by the NEERI, the NGRI and the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology be “subjected to a peer review by scientists jointly appointed by the Department of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.” The main conclusions will be shared with selected NGOs which will be invited to give their suggestions in writing within 30 days.

The NEERI and the NGRI told the GoM that while five of the 29 wells studied in the neighbourhood of the site were contaminated, there was no possibility of leaching. They say the soil outside the site is “generally clean.” Victims groups and activists earlier questioned these conclusions.

The stored toxic wastes will be incinerated by year-end, while 1.1 million tonnes of contaminated soil within the site will be buried in a secured landfill over 16 hectares at the plant site itself. Water in the contaminated wells will be pumped, treated and recharged, or alternatively, the contaminated wells will be sealed.

The Centre will bear the cost of remediation “in the first instance” without prejudice to its legal rights to claim restitution, and will take steps to claim it from those found liable for the damage on the basis of the “polluter pays” principle.

Compromise solution

A compromise solution has been found in the tug of war between the Centre and the State over who will control the Rs. 310-crore remediation process: a Central Oversight Committee will oversee the Madhya Pradesh government's action.

When the GoM discussed the issue on Sunday, a suggestion to establish an Empowered Remediation Authority was shot down by the State government. On Thursday, the Cabinet accepted the GoM's recommendation to set up the 15-member Oversight Committee chaired by Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh and co-chaired by Madhya Pradesh Minister for Gas Relief Babulal Gaur.

The committee will be established at the level of the Union government in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with representation from the Ministries and departments concerned in both the Union and State governments. The Environment Ministry will notify and service the committee.

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