Fluoride Action Network

In a Factory’s Shadow, Fears About Health

Source: New York Times | August 8th, 2012 | By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Location: India
Industry type: Greenhouse/Ozone Gases

NATHKUVA, India — By issuing carbon credits to companies for reducing emissions in the developing world, the United Nations aimed to inject cash into poor communities supporting the growth of sustainable industry. But in this remote village adjacent to Gujarat Fluorochemicals Limited’s coolant gas plant, environmental groups and residents have been at loggerheads with the company over pollution since it opened in 1989.

The hulking factory that looms behind the tiny vegetable plots in this poor village is one of the largest manufacturers of a coolant gas that keeps air-conditioners whirring across the globe.

Villagers complain of rashes and birth defects and display warped ears of corn, which they contend are the result of pollution from the plant. Although it is difficult to link the litany of complaints to the factory, it is true that making the coolant can release noxious fumes and dangerous fluoride-containing wastes, as well as potent acids, that — without proper disposal — escape into the air, soil and groundwater and could cause such symptoms.

Mahesh Pandya, an engineer and the executive director of the Indian environmental group Paryavaran Mitra, said he was shocked when he heard that Gujarat Fluorochemicals was going to be awarded United Nations carbon credits in 2005, soon after a nighttime gas leak from the factory prompted frustrated villagers to riot at the factory gates.

“I thought, how can they get United Nations carbon credits when they’re making people sick and polluting the land?” Dr. Pandya said in his simple office in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat State, where he was surrounded by paperwork from his legal battles with the factory.

Gujarat Fluorochemicals did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In theory, projects receiving United Nations carbon credits must comply with all local environmental laws, something Dr. Pandya said the Gujarat plant had not done. Four pollution lawsuits against the company are pending, he said. Villagers say the plant is still releasing toxic chemicals, and studies conducted two years ago showed dangerous levels of fluoride in the water, Dr. Pandya said, although high levels can occur naturally.

But the United Nations relies on local authorities to enforce pollution laws, and audits of remote factories like the Gujarat Fluorochemicals plant often rely heavily on material prepared by the manufacturers themselves.

Three auditors of projects involving HFC-23, a byproduct released in the coolant-making process that earns manufacturers lucrative carbon credits when destroyed, have been suspended for shoddy practices. For example, some United Nations documents for the Gujarat project have shown the plant surrounded only by forest, residents say, when in fact there are villages in the area.

“The ‘sustainable development’ here is merely lip service,” said Siddhartha Dabhi, an economist affiliated with the University of Essex in England, who is from the area near the factory and has written about the problems of carbon offsets. “The accounting logic in the U.N. system is that one ton of CO2 removed in Gujarat is the same as one ton in New York, but that doesn’t consider local effects.”

The company has contributed some money for constructing local schools and buying fertilizer for local farmers. It organizes sporting events and has provided some jobs. But women like Bharti Ben, 30, say that the “fog” emanating from the factory most mornings burns her children’s eyes and lungs. She walks two miles a day to collect drinking water from another village.

“If you raise your voice, you get a bit of money, but the problem is still there,” Mohan Solanki, 52, said with a disgusted shake of his head, recalling a notorious 1984 gas leak at a rural Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands and injured half a million. “This is a small, slow-motion edition of Bhopal,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 10, 2012

Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about a village in India that deals with pollution from a local factory that makes a coolant gas (related to a front-page article on carbon credits), referred incorrectly to a resident who compared the situation to a “small, slow-motion edition of Bhopal.” The resident, Mohan Solanki, is a man.