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A different kind of red terror

red terror

Living with toxic waste:The red mud pond near Rengopalli.

An alumina refinery in Orissa blithely continues to pollute the surrounding villages, despite the recommendations of the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee that it be closed since it poses environmental and health hazards…

The road from Bhawanipatna to Lanjigrah in Orissa is a bumpy ride through the kodali ghati (banana valley), with stretches of parched forest land interspersed with patches of green. You know it's Vedanta territory when you see the road packed bumper-to-bumper with Vedanta's huge “Bulktainer” trucks carrying alumina from Lanjigarh to Jharsuguda and back.

This view is eventually broken by a large spread of shimmering white sand within a barbed-wire enclosure at Chattrapur village. This is the ash pond of the refinery that contains alumina ash leftover from the processing of bauxite at the refinery of Vedanta Aluminum Ltd (VAL).

Two villages — Borbhata and Kinnari — and 120 families were displaced and resettled to make way for the alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. The irregularities in the displacement and resettlement process, as pointed out by the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee in 2005, is another story.

The more pressing problem at hand is the health and environmental hazards being faced by Rengopali, Banduguda and Chattrapur villages that fall at the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills.

Every morning, the villagers of Rengopalli village wake up to a stuffy smoke cloud enveloping their village. This is dust from the refinery which is located 500 metres from the village. The villagers of Chattrapur face the same problem from the ash pond located just outside the village, which contains the ash slurry generated from the plant.

Rengopalli is also at alarming proximity to the east and west cells of the Red Mud pond built for the refinery's alkaline waste disposal.

Red Mud, which is a mixture of sodium aluminates and un-dissolved bauxite residues containing iron, silicon, and titanium, is the final waste product in the process of extracting alumina from bauxite. In the currently operational west cell, a ton of toxic waste is dumped for every ton of alumina produced in the refinery.

Contested claim
Villagers of both Rengopalli and Banduguda complain of cattle dying and trees not bearing fruit due to water contamination in hand pumps and wells. The company, however, discards any concerns regarding groundwater contamination. “There is absolutely no contamination in ground water due to the red mud pond as enough precautions have been taken by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore while designing the pond and it is being regularly monitored by the State Pollution Control Board,” says Dr. Mukesh Kumar, Chief Operations Officer of VAL.

According to the villagers, dust flowing in from the plant side has caused respiratory problems to a number of people and 14 villagers have died over the last two years due to Tuberculosis, a claim which VAL refutes on the ground that dust cannot fly towards the village off the alkaline slurry, as it is wet.

Based on its inspection of the site in December 2008 and February last year, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board directed the company to take measures to control the fugitive dust, improve the housekeeping of the ash pond, stop the seepage of caustic water from pipe lines and to stop the discharge of contaminated water from the refinery's clear water pond into the Vamsadhara among other things.
Another problem being faced by Rengopali is the submergence of a road to Basantpada due to extension of the red mud pond. The company, however, has offered to provide an alternative road from Rengopali to Basantpada, which the villagers have rejected.

They say that once this road is submerged they would have to go through the Niyamgiri hill top to reach the school, which they say would be inconvenient and dangerous for their children.
Another hazardous fallout of the refinery is the environmental damage it is causing to the Vamsadhara River which is the main source of water for the villagers and their cattle.

However, over the last one year, the villagers have been apprehensive of using the water of the river due to pollution. Some of the villagers from Rengopali also complained that during rains, chemical waste from the refinery flows directly into the river According to the company, the river is absolutely unharmed as far as the dumping of effluents is concerned. “The recent inspection by SPCB on 03-04-03-2010 on the direction of Central Pollution Control Board has shown that there is no impact and surface water pH is below 7.5. Further, no case of death due to TB in last 8 years could be established as mentioned by villagers. Further, our plant is a Zero discharge plant and there is no question of discharge of any type of treated or untreated effluent from company to Vansdhara River,” says Dr. Kumar.

Ignored recommendation
In 2004, the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee had deputed a fact-finding team consisting of S.C. Sharma, Former Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife), MoEF and S.K. Chadha, Assistant Inspector General of Forests (Wildlife), MoEF to carry out site visits in December, 2004. In its report submitted to the court in 2005, the CEC recommended closure of the project citing grave environmental and human rights concerns.

The CEC noted that “the Red Mud Pond and the Ash Pond are being established on the banks of river Vamsdhara with a part of the river actually covered by the red mud pond. A flash flood in the river can cause a breach in the pond resulting in a massive spill in the river of noxious and poisonous red mud which is a mix of highly toxic alkaline chemicals and heavy metals including radioactive element all of which could have disastrous consequences”.

It also cautioned that dangerous heavy metals and chemicals may leach the ground water and destroy all the plant life that comes into contact with it. The report further said that the rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by VAL had “glossed over this aspect” and was not sufficient for a project of this magnitude and thus required a much larger, more comprehensive EIA.

Surprisingly, in a 2008 judgment, the Supreme Court ignored the findings of its own committee and allowed the construction of the refinery to proceed, albeit under the banner of Sterlite Industries India Ltd. (SIIL) instead of VAL, a distinction that is practically meaningless as SIIL is a subsidiary of VAL.

This led many to raise eyebrows, including Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, as it was the first incidence where the court had differed from the CEC recommendations.

Simmering discontent
While the company claims that all those who lost land have been provided with compensation packages, there is a lot of discontent among the villagers as to how the process was carried out.

In 2005, the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee's report recommended closure of the entire project on several grounds, including irreparable environmental damage and faulty relief and rehabilitation process.

“The displacement was opposed vehemently by them (the people) despite being offered large cash compensation by M/s Vedanta. In the face of resistance, the District Collector and the company officials collaborated to coerce and threaten them. An atmosphere of fear was created through the hired goons, the police and the administration. Many of the tribals were badly beaten up by the police and the goons,” states the report.

However, the company maintains that the all displaced families have been rehabilitated in a rehabilitation colony maintained by the company.

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