“Kanpur: chromium disaster” by EcoFriends, Suparna Sharma
Sharma, S. “Kanpur: chromium disaster.” Clean Ganga Campaign, 2003.
Kanpur: chromium disaster
By Suparna Sharma
Lethal chromium wastes are lying along the banks of the Ganga in Kanpur. In any sane country, this would be considered an environmental catastrophe.
How does the legal system in a country like the US respond to chromium pollution?
Well, it awards US $333 million to 600 residents.
And how does the great Indian system-government or otherwise-respond when 1,124 tonnes of chromium are left out in the open, along the banks of Ganga in Kanpur?
They cover it up by stating that relevant statistics are “top secret”.
This criminal neglect doesn’t stop there. Although some studies carried out by the Kanpur-based Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), there has been almost no effort by the state machinery to tabulate the damage caused to date.
And strangely enough, chromium has entered the local environment despite “an effort” to extract its traces from the waste from the leather tanneries of Kanpur.
See no evil, know no evil
There are places in Kanpur along the banks of the Ganga where the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has put up notices warning the public about the pollutants. In Rakhimandi, for example, CPCB warns people against using the groundwater since it is polluted and certified as “hazardous”.
A CPCB report that preceded these public warnings categorically said, “In physical appearance the groundwater in this zone was characterised by strong yellow colour due to high concentration of chromium.” This, it went on to explain, happened because chrome-rich sludge was “indiscriminately disposed.”
Soon after the pollution control board erected boards in Rakhimandi, in Kanpur’s Jajmau area, a treatment plant gurgled into life. This 36 MLD capacity plant was commissioned to treat Kanpur’s tannery wastewater. While doing that, it did something that no one had accounted for. As Rakesh Jaiswal of EcoFriends – a local NGO working on highlighting the pollution of the Ganga in Kanpur adds, “The residual sludge from the treatment plant – with traces of chromium – is dumped right out in the open in Jajmau.”
No safety precautions, no concern. Trucks were loaded and emptied. In effect, chromium from the tanneries that was once polluting the Ganga and subsequently Kanpur, was now directly contaminating the city. “We have seen even the state pollution control board trucks dump sludge in the open,” adds Jaiswal.
Top secret or topless officials?
Most officials in Kanpur get uneasy when asked for figures regarding the chromium-laden solid waste. While some guard the facts in the hope that what people don’t know won’t hurt them, others are plain guilty and say the statistics are “top secret” that cannot be divulged.
But there are a few who, after much coaxing and humoring, relent.
These officials admit, off the record, that in Kanpur the 36 mld plant dumps 22 tonnes of solid waste, or sludge, out in the open every day. “This solid waste contains chromium, a hazardous substance, in good measure: 18-22 milligram per gram,” one official said.
In other words, 440 kg chromium gets dumped every day. Simple calculations show that this plant has dumped 1,124.20 tonnes chromium on Kanpur’s soil since it was commissioned seven years ago!
These statistics are alarming and in a developed country would be considered an environmental catastrophe. Remember Erin Brockovich? The lawyer-activist made famous on the celluloid by Julia Roberts? Brockovich’s investigation established that the health of people living in and around Hinkley, California, had been devastated by exposure to toxic chromium VI that had leaked into the groundwater from the nearby Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Compressor Station.
In 1996, as a result of the largest direct action lawsuit of its kind, the giant utility was ordered to make the largest legal settlement in US history, paying out some $ 333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents.
Unfortunately, there is no such respite for the citizens of Kanpur. The plant which, treats tannery effluents is responsible for the safe disposal of the sludge.
F.U. Rahman, team leader of the Dutch-funded Project Planning and Coordination Unit that helped build the plant, agrees that solid waste is a serious problem.
“Solid waste containing chromium is being dumped around in Kanpur. About 2,000 truckloads of solid waste needs safe disposal. Hopefully this year, it will all be disposed in Ruma, our site for land filling.” Rahman said, referring to a landfill whose construction is on the anvil.
B.P. Shukla, senior environment engineer in-charge of CPCB’s Kanpur unit, says, “Chromium, a hazardous substance, is getting into Kanpur’s food chain and contaminating groundwater. But, no one wants to talk about it.”
Yeh Chromium-chromium kya hai?
According to a note prepared for www.cleanganga.com by Dr. Padma Vankar, of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, chromium is a tanning agent that strengthens leather and makes it water repellent. Though it comes in three forms, we are only concerned with two-trivalent chromium (Cr III) and hexavalent chromium (Cr VI).
Cr III occurs naturally in rocks, soil, plants, animals, and volcanic emissions and is believed to play a nutritional or pharmaceutical role in the body.
Cr VI is produced industrially by heating Cr III in the presence of mineral bases and atmospheric oxygen. Of the various forms of chromium, Cr VI is the most toxic and has proven to be of the greatest occupational and environmental health concern.
Though Kanpur tanneries use Cr III as basic chrome sulphate (BCS), often the BCS is not of good quality and contains Cr VI. Also, when sludge containing Cr III is dumped in open under alkaline conditions, it gets converted to Cr VI.
Cr VI affects air and ground quality and can be transferred in aerosol from significant distances from its emission point. It can enter the body when people breathe air, eat food, or drink water containing it.
“And in Kanpur, chromium just needs a good rainfall: the soil and groundwater both have got severely contaminated. Chromium goes where the rainwater goes,” an official said.
Certain Cr VI compounds, found to be carcinogenic in humans, can cause a wide range of health effects: Inhaling relatively high concentrations of some forms of Cr VI can cause nosebleeds, ulcers and holes in the nasal septum; Ingestion of high doses of Cr VI can cause kidney and liver damage, stomach ulcers, convulsions, and even death; Dermal exposures may cause skin ulcers.
Also, according to US International Agency for Research on Cancer, ingested Cr VI is largely converted to Cr III in the stomach. But the process by which Cr VI is reduced to Cr III causes many forms of DNA damage. Research also shows that estimated that 10 per cent of absorbed Cr VI might remain in the human body for up to 5 years.
So how has Kanpur been affected?
“Come and see our fields if you want to know what’s happening. Whenever we pump the so-called ‘treated water’ from the plant, our crops die they just burn,” villagers living behind the Jajmau plant said.
“We’ve done some tests and found high amounts of chromium in vegetables, especially tomatoes,” CPCB’s Shukla said. But what about the human users, CPCB?
If government officials are interested, they can just drive past the treatment plant and see what’s happening in the rice and vegetable fields. Or better still, they can commission a health survey. The seemingly vigorous town may just have a few ulcers and unexplained deaths to investigate.
Suparna Sharma is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.