Neon green water drawn from a tubewell in Khan Chandpur village | Malavika Vyawahare
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Khan Chandpur (Uttar Pradesh): Residents of Khan Chandpur village in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh describe the colour of the water in their village as ‘peela’ (yellow).

“You can see the water, what colour it is,” says 70-year-old Vaidyanath Pal.

Hand pumps here have been spewing neon green water for years — water contaminated with a cancer-causing heavy metal, Hexavalent Chromium, or Cr VI.

The Kanpur region is a hub for leather tanning, and Cr VI is one of the most toxic by-products of the tanning process. Over the past two decades, many factories have shut shop, responding to global market pressures and tightening environmental regulations. But while the industries left, the contaminants did not. A lot of the toxic waste from leather tanning industries in Kanpur has been dumped illegally in deep borings, open lands and in rivers.

Less than a kilometre from the settlement where Pal lives, across the Kanpur-Jhansi highway, an estimated 45,000 tonnes of hazardous chromium waste lies abandoned at an open site, tainting the earth and leaching into the groundwater.

It occupies an area similar in size to that enclosed by the outer circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, but the effects extend far beyond. Every monsoon season, the leachate from the dumps percolates into the groundwater, feeding a plume of polluted water.

Green water at 100 feet

Chromium occurs in nature in two stable forms. Trivalent Chromium or Cr III, is an essential nutrient for the human body, while Hexavalent Chromium or Cr VI is a carcinogen. The hazardous waste dump near Khan Chandpur came from chrome sulphate manufacturing industries. Chrome sulphate is used as a tanning agent for leather and is not toxic in itself, but improperly treated waste from these industries leads to the formation of Cr VI.

Waste dump near the village | Malavika Vyawahare

The Julia Roberts-starrer Erin Brockovich popularised Cr VI around the turn of the millennium — it was based on the true story of Erin Brockovich’s battle against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for contaminating groundwater. Brockovich, an environment activist, won a record $333 million verdict for residents of Hinkley town in California.

However, in Khan Chandpur, people are resigned to living with the toxic waste. Some have even unwittingly used contaminated material in the construction and renovation of houses. The greenish hue of water, however, has proven more difficult to swallow.

“The first borewells that were dug are all useless now, they give yellow water, so we are digging new deeper wells that are serviced by submersibles,” Nanhi, 42, the pradhan of the village who uses one name, says.

These pumps draw water from the depths of over 100 feet, which is presumably free of contamination. But recently, some of the new pumps have also been retching water of a greenish hue.

Also read: Delhi’s water shortage problem finally has a solution — 3 dams across Yamuna

What Pollution Board study says

A Detailed Project Report (DPR) commissioned by the Central Pollution Control Board found that soil and groundwater are contaminated with Cr VI in Khan Chandpur and two other villages in the vicinity of Rania town.

“There is high risk of further contamination of soil and groundwater as long as the source of contamination is not contained,” a CPCB report warned.

Almost 66 per cent of the groundwater samples exceeded the site-specific target levels determined by the consultants working on the DPR. Some samples reported as much as 200,000 micrograms/litre (μg/l) — the permissible limit for chromium as laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards and the World Health Organisation for drinking water is 50 μg/l. The standard refers to chromium because the different forms of chromium transform according to environmental conditions in the water and in the human body.

Vaidyanath Pal (C) | Malavika Vyawahare

Living with Cr VI is dangerous in other ways — inhaling dust containing the metal or even being exposed to it can lead to health problems. At higher concentrations, Cr VI can cause stomach ulcers, cancers and severe damage to kidneys and liver. The effects are clearly visible to the residents of Khan Chandpur.

“You get skin lesions if you bathe with the water, and vomit if you drink it in small quantities,” says 70-year-old Pal.

Who’s responsible?

The Rania dump site, as it is known, is one of hundreds of orphan sites in the country where hazardous waste has been left out in the open. The waste continues to poison the water, air and soil long after the flight of industry. In 299 of the 320 identified hazardous waste-contaminated sites in India, people are using the groundwater for drinking.

Fixing responsibility for the clean-up is the biggest stumbling block, officials from the CPCB say.

Implementing the ‘polluter pays’ principle is equally difficult. Five companies that were deemed responsible for the Rania dump were shuttered over a decade ago. The cost of remediation is pegged at about Rs 150 crore over 8-11 months.

Also read: Punjab’s worst ecological crisis in years cannot be cleaned up anytime soon

Attempts to fix the problem

The CPCB is implementing a project to remediate eight high priority sites, including Rania, by channelling funds from the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) under the ‘Remediation of hazardous waste contaminated dumpsites’ project.

It was approved in 2011 by the Ministry of Finance for remediation at 12 sites, with 40 per cent of the funds coming from NCEF and the rest to be arranged by state governments. In subsequent consultation with states, the number of sites included in the project was reduced to eight.

Rania is not the only site where chromium is a problem — there is also Orichem in Odisha, Nibra in West Bengal and Ranipet in Tamil Nadu.

For Ganjam in Odisha, another heavy metal, mercury, is the contaminant, while in sites like Eloor-Edyaar in Kerala, it is both heavy metals and pesticides. Near Lucknow in UP, pesticide contamination has been reported, while in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, industries that produce H-Acid, used in the manufacture of dye, are the culprits.

The DPR for Rania was accepted by the Project Steering Committee last year. However, in none of the cases has the second phase of work, the actual remediation, started.

“Many people come and take samples, we were told something will be done,” Pal says. “Every year they come, but nothing is done. The water is still undrinkable.”

The union environment ministry was approached for comment but is yet to respond. This report will be updated when the ministry replies.

Also read: Pakistan threatens to move international court if India stops Ravi, Sutlej & Beas water

This article is the first of a three-part series. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from WaterAid India.
The author is a freelance journalist who reports on science and environment.

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