Toxic landfill at Dobbaspet worries residents

A landfill of hazardous electronic and biomedical waste starts functioning in Bangalore’s outskirts. Is the government’s solution for the city’s garbage disposal issues safe?

A toxic landfill project, which started operating from February 2009, at the outskirts of the city after facing stiff political and local opposition for five years, could be potentially hazardous for residents and villagers living in that area, warn environmental activists.

Dobbaspet landfill

Toxic Landfill at Dobbaspet (pic courtesy: GTZ)

The Rs. 55 crore project, a joint venture of Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KPSCB) and Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), a German engineering firm, is located almost 50 kilometres away from Bangalore in Dobbaspet near Tumkur Road (NH4) and aims to provide a long-term solution to the state’s garbage disposal problem.

Pollution control board authorities believe that the project is completely "foolproof".

"It is a scientifically designed project," said D R Kumaraswamy, Environment Officer of the KPSCB, "and only the fourth such project in the entire country. This facility has been long overdue considering the problems that we used to face in disposing off waste in an environment-friendly manner."

Under the laws put in place by the government in 2003, all industries had to store waste in special chambers inside their factories, before the new landfill became operational in February. GTZ officials estimate that these companies produce around 40,000 tonnes of waste every year.

GTZ, a Frankfurt-based engineering company, currently has offices in more than 130 countries and more than 1,00,000 employees on its payroll. Other than landfill ventures, GTZ also deals with education, health and environmental projects. 

Concerns against the landfill

Scientists and activists feel that the landfill could contaminate underground water pipes in the long run.

"Environmental damage cannot be completely prevented," said Abhishek Pratap, toxic waste campaigner at Greenpeace India, "no matter how many precautions you put in place. Pratap cited the example of the Raigarh district-dumping site near Mumbai, which resulted in the entire area’s water supply getting contaminated.

Pratap says steel linings that are used in landfill projects do not completely absorb the harmful chemicals and absorb "only 70%-80% of these substances". The rest, he says, goes into the soil and percolates through to the underwater pipes.

Bhargavi S Rao, coordinator of educational programs, Environmental Support Group, also said that the scale at which toxic waste is generated in the city does raise a doubt as to whether this landfill has the capacity to take all the waste, without letting any of it seep into the soil.

"There is a possibility of water contamination occurring in that region," said Dr. N.B.Prakash, Associate Professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS). "Scientifically designed projects such as these have been built in other countries as well, and environmental damage has still happened. The effects could be seen 10-15 years down the line, even if it appears to be safe currently due to all the precautions that have been taken by the pollution control board."

Other experts feel the water table at Dobbaspet makes it unsuitable for the construction of a landfill.

"There are lots of underground pipes and borewells in Dobbaspet, and there is a possibility of contamination occurring, due to the vicinity of the pipes to the landfill site," said Dr. M.S. Nagaraja, Associate Professor at UAS, who is based out of Hassan.

Bhargavi Rao said that awareness needs to be created among people about the dangers of hazardous waste. “People keep changing mobile phones and laptops at least once or twice every year, without realizing that it all adds to the hazardous waste that’s being generated in the city,” she added.

The details 

The landfill, which is known as a Treatment Storage and Disposal Facility (TSDF), is spread over an area of 93 acres. It can store a maximum of 40,000 tonnes of industrial and biomedical waste every year and 8,00,000 tonnes – enough waste to fill about 5000 football stadiums – in two decades. Karnataka, currently, is the tenth highest producer of industrial and biomedical waste in the country, according to the Central Pollution Control Board website.

The three other states where such a landfill has already come up are Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra under the supervision of the respective state government and pollution control board. Similar facilities are being constructed in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

"The capacity of an average TSDF varies from place to place, depending on the requirements of that area," said Dr. Jurgene Porst, Senior Advisor at GTZ.

The new landfill disposes toxic substances in three steps. At first, the waste is segregated and treated with chemicals to break it down into simpler components. Then, it is merged with environment-friendly clay and forms a compound called bentonite. Next, the bentonite is sandwiched between two layers consisting of gravel, steel linings that prevent trash from leaching out, clay and a layer of soil and rocks. Finally, the entire chemically treated block is buried at the site.

But, industrial and biomedical waste cannot be buried just about anywhere.

According to the hazardous waste and management rules framed by the Central Pollution Control Board, New Delhi, which came into effect in 1989, landfill projects such as the TSDF can only be built on sites that are 800 feet below the ground level, receive minimal rainfall and are sparsely populated. And that is where Dobbaspet, which has the lowest population density in Karnataka, comes in.

Maridi Eco Industries and Semb Ramky Environment Management Private Limited, two other major players who have a stake in the project, supervise the entire process of treatment and disposal of waste.

At the local level

However, villagers and local politicians living in Dobbaspet still remain unconvinced about the project and are far from pleased about the prospect of having moldering toxic waste being dumped in the vicinity of their houses.

"The authorities are only thinking of profits," said K Nandish, the General Secretary of BJP, Tumkur District, "They are more eager to complete the project and are not all looking into the problems that villagers might face."

Another social activist, who has lived in the locality for the past two decades, feels that the project should be opposed at all costs."Dobbaspet is a fertile area and this project is not at all advisable for this area," said 64-year-old N.Nanjunadappa.

The proposal for the project was put forward in 2001, but it took more than five years to get approved due to stiff opposition from villagers and local political parties, according to KPSCB officials.

Porst, however, claims that the villagers had been briefed about the feasibility of the project and the issue had been resolved.

"We have explained to them that this project will in no way contaminate underground water pipes and affect water supply in their homes," explained Porst.

However, Suresh Kumar, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Rajajinagar, who lives near Dobbaspet, contradicts Porst, saying that the villagers had not been briefed properly about the project.

"People will obviously be apprehensive about the unit," said Kumar, who is also the Minister for Urban Development, "if things haven’t been explained properly. They should have taken the villagers into confidence properly and not done anything in a hush-hush manner."

He also added that the pollution control board should have taken the problems of the villagers into consideration. "If the project is causing inconvenience to them [the villagers], then proper steps should be taken to rectify the issue," he said.

Karnataka presently has more than 2000 registered industries generating waste every year. Each of these companies will have to pay between Rs.1500 to Rs.2500 for each tonne of waste in order to use the TSDF.

The landfill has already taken 8000 tonnes of hazardous waste, said Dr. Porst, the Senior Advisor of the project. He added that they were “satisfied” with its current progress. Companies like BHEL, Volvo and Toyota have used this facility to dump waste.

He added that it would not affect the environment in any way, as long as all the industries followed regulations. "We’re pushing other states at the moment to set up TDSFs," said the German engineer, who has been living in Bangalore for the last seven years. "It is necessary for them to have it as well."

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