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India moves to clean up site of deadly 1984 Union Carbide gas leak

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 9, 2010; 1:43 PM

NEW DELHI -- A month after seven former Union Carbide employees were given two-year jail terms for their role in the deadly gas leak in Bhopal a quarter-century ago, a senior Indian official met with survivors' groups Friday with a new plan to clean up the abandoned factory site.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told survivors in the central Indian city that he will head a panel set up to monitor the government's effort to decontaminate the site, which activists say has polluted the groundwater in the neighborhood and led to chronic ailments.

"It is a matter of great anguish that the waste is lying in the factory's premises" so many years after the disaster, Ramesh told reporters in Bhopal, according to the Press Trust of India. "We are looking at all the safe ways of disposing it."

More than 15,000 people died after deadly plumes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal in December 1984. At least 3,000 people were killed immediately, and more than 500,000 people were affected by gas-related illnesses.

Union Carbide settled a civil lawsuit out of court in 1989 and paid the Indian government $470 million to compensate the victims.

The lower court verdict last month, in which seven former Union Carbide employees were found guilty of "death by negligence" and "culpable homicide not amounting to murder," triggered a national outcry. In an apparent response, the government is assuming responsibility for cleaning up the plant site.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation has also said it will renew a request for the extradition from the United States of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson. Many analysts here have contrasted President Obama's toughness with BP chief Tony Hayward since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with the Indian government's weakness in allowing Anderson to leave India soon after the accident.

The government's cleanup plan is based on the recommendations of a recent joint report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and the National Geophysical Research Institute, which tested the soil and water near the site.

According to the report, the rusting plant should be dismantled; the contaminated groundwater should be pumped out, treated and returned to the ground; and some of the chemical waste should be incinerated and some stored in secure bunkers in underground landfills. The report puts the estimated cost of the process at more than $60 million.

But in a public letter to Ramesh on Friday, the survivors said the report is "shoddy" and plays down the toxic damage at the site. They also said that cleaning up the chemical waste is the responsibility of Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co., which acquired Union Carbide Corp. in 2001.

"We want the waste disposal and remediation done according to the highest international standards. The government and the Indian taxpayers will not be able to afford to pay for it," said Rachna Dhingra, a campaigner with the Bhopal Information and Action Group, who attended the meeting.

In addition to the environmental concerns, the government's offer to dismantle the rusting plant has also become entangled in questions of historical preservation.

The survivors' groups told Ramesh on Friday that they oppose the dismantling proposal, saying that only the survivors of the disaster have the right to decide what should become of the plant, which they see as a remnant of one of the most traumatic events in India's industrial history.

The groups want the government to initiate the process of getting the plant listed as a UNESCO industrial heritage site.

"Conservation is an act of social catharsis through which we acknowledge the bad memories attached to the site," said Moulshri Joshi, an architect with Space Matters, a New Delhi-based firm that the Madhya Pradesh state government has chosen to turn the site into a memorial.

Ramesh and the activists have agreed to meet again in August.

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