Twenty-five years after a toxic gas cloud from a pesticide factory killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, groundwater at the accident site -- a drinking water supply for 15 communities -- remains contaminated, according to a report released today by an advocacy group and a medical clinic.
The U.K.-based Bhopal Medical Appeal and the Sambhavna Clinic say water contamination is worsening as chemicals leach through soil into the aquifer.
"A huge proportion of the factory site is full of very toxic waste," said Colin Toogood, the report's author. "There are parts of the factory where the soil you walk on is 100 percent toxic waste, and there are areas where you still see pools of mercury on the ground."
At issue is one of the most famous industrial accidents of all time.
On the evening of Dec. 2, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas escaped from the former Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, killing at least 3,000 people immediately. Thousands more are said to have since died or been injured as a result of the toxic cloud, although the exact death toll remains unclear.
The government of the Madhya Pradesh state took responsibility for the site in 1998, and Union Carbide is now a subsidiary of Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co.
Indian officials say the contamination around the factory is largely contained and is not a public health threat. The Indian government announced last week that it would open the site to the public to help people come to terms with the disaster.
And Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told the BBC today that communities are being supplied with clean drinking water. "There is nothing hazardous to human life. ... People should not be worried," Chouhan said. "We have secured the site."
But the new report claims site contamination has had lasting consequences on people exposed to it. "Not surprisingly," the report says, "the populations in the areas surveyed have high rates of birth defects, rapidly rising cancer rates, neurological damage, chaotic menstrual cycles and mental illness."
Researchers collected groundwater samples from 20 locations and sent them to a lab in Delhi, India. The lab did not report finding chemicals in its samples, so researchers sent duplicate samples to a lab in Switzerland, which reported high levels of chlorinated compounds in two of its three samples.
"It would be nice to think the contamination had cleared up, but it does make you wonder," Toogood said. "The Swiss results just confirmed what we were expecting to find. There's absolutely no doubt their [the Indian lab's] samples were flawed, but we're not able to speculate why that is."
Swiss lab results show chloroform concentrations as many as 3.5 times higher than drinking-water guidelines from the World Health Organization and U.S. EPA, and carbon tetrachloride at up to 2,400 times higher than the guidelines.
Because of the highly contaminated samples and the discrepancies between labs, Toogood is pushing for an independent analysis of water quality around the site, including a large-scale groundwater sampling project and a long-term monitoring program.
"We would like to see a complete cleanup in Bhopal, but you can't have that unless you have a full environmental assessment, and that would have to be done by an independent body," Toogood said. "There's too much going on with politics for it to be done by the Indian government. Our tests show that -- there are clear discrepancies there."
Advocates like Toogood insist that Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, is responsible for the cleanup even though the site is now the property of the Indian government.
"Dow bought Union Carbide and inherited all of the assets and liabilities," Toogood said. "One of the liabilities is the Bhopal cleanup. ... Dow would like to pass the buck elsewhere, but as far as we're concerned, they're responsible. The Indian government took responsibility of the site, and they may own land, but they're not the polluter."
Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick said in an e-mail that the company never owned or operated the plant because Union Carbide India Ltd. managed and operated the site, and that Union Carbide sold its stake in that company -- which continues to operate today under another name -- in 1994. Furthermore, he said Union Carbide provided financial and medical aid to the victims of the accident.
Finally, Sprick said the state government is responsible for cleanup activities and should deal with the groundwater contamination.