Meghalaya minister sounds alarm over leak from uranium effluent tanks in remote village

Hindustan Times, Shillong | ByDavid Laitphlang
Oct 21, 2020 07:03 PM IST

The minister said there were cracks in the storage tanks of uranium effluents which could be dangerous for the villagers.

A minister in Meghalaya said Tuesday that he has seen uranium effluents leaking from storage tanks once owned by the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) and later operated by the Uranium Corporation of India in a remote village in South West Khasi Hills which he termed as “dangerous”.

Meghalaya minister Hamletson Dohling (in white T-shirt) near a tank of uranium effluents in a remote village in South West Khasi Hills.(HT PHOTO)
Meghalaya minister Hamletson Dohling (in white T-shirt) near a tank of uranium effluents in a remote village in South West Khasi Hills.(HT PHOTO)

Community and rural development minister, Hamletson Dohling who visited the Nongbah Jynrin village in South West Khasi Hills, 135 km west of Shillong, with a group of student and youth leaders after learning about the leakage, also flagged “unauthorised repairs.”

Dohling said he was surprised to see signs of repairs in the tanks in one of Meghalaya’s most inaccessible places that remains largely cut off from the rest of the state.

“I have seen that there were cracks in the tanks, but it is very surprising that there were signs of repair. I don’t have knowledge about who gave the order to repair,” he said.

The minister went on to say, “If there was nothing, why should it be repaired in the first place? What I saw is very dangerous.” Dohling asserted, while endorsing what the local youth have been reporting in recent weeks.

With this admission, the government is likely to step up efforts to ensure the safety of residents of the area.

Last Friday, the state government had decided to probe into the reports of leakage of toxic waste from tanks containing uranium wastes in the Domiasiat-Nongbah-Jynrin area. There are four effluent storage tanks and two other reservoirs at the location which have developed wide cracks causing leakage of toxic waste, locals have alleged.

Following a high-level review meeting it was decided to immediately set up an expert panel to probe the reports of radiation emission, Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong had said. Chief secretary MS Rao has been tasked to constitute the panel.

“We have written to the Central Pollution Control Board as well as the North-Eastern Hill University and other experts. Once they respond, and we identify the expert team and will formally issue an order by next week,” Tynsong stated.

Chief minister Conrad K Sangma had earlier said that his government would examine a demand for an independent inquiry into the matter. He also said that experts and government agencies have inspected the concrete tanks and assured him that no such leakage has been detected.

However, on Monday evening he told journalists, “We will get the demand examined… and after holding discussions with the forest and environment department and other agencies, we will take a call on how to move forward on this matter. We are equally concerned about the situation. As I said, all agencies working on this have clearly indicated that no such leakage has occurred.”

Meghalaya is the third most uranium-rich state in the country after Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand accounting for 16 per cent of the nation’s reserves with deposit estimates pegged at 9.22 million tonnes spread across 422 hectares of land.

Exploratory work by the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) began in the 1970s and there was a move to initiate open-pit mining of the precious mineral. Work continued till 1993 but after a lot of outcry over health hazards and its impact on the environment the mines were directed to be shut.

Though AMD left, they did so allegedly without properly clearing up the tools, effluents etc. as per laid down protocols.

“It was summoned back and in 1995, built huge concrete tanks to put in all the remnants, processed uranium decay,” revealed London-based environmental economist and co-founder and CEO of EcoFriend World Dr Bremley WB Lyngdoh who has been actively following this matter with local pressure groups primarily the Khasi Students’ Union which has been spearheading the campaign.

In 2009, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) was granted permission to carry out pre-mining activities. But the permission was permanently cancelled by the state government in 2016. UCIL packed up operations for good in 2018 after repeated protests and violent incidents.

Last month the matter came into the limelight again with locals reporting of foul smell in the area and cracks appearing in several places where the storage tanks were set up. Though initially the South West Khasi Hills district administration conducted an enquiry and gave a clean chit, the pressure groups did not give up and pursued the matter.

Khasi Students Union (KSU) leaders visited the site along with Dr Lyngdoh on October 9 last. According to Forwardman Nongrem, South West Khasi Hills District’s KSU president, the geiger counter — an instrument to detect and measure ionising radiation — detected very high levels of radiation in the area.

Dr. Lyngdoh said, “When we visited the site, I got the shock of my life — the radiation level recorded by the geiger counter was at 1,083 count per minute,” said Dr Lyngdoh, adding that he had personally apprised the chief minister of the situation.

KSU’s Nongrem said that appointing an expert committee was all well and good, but they wanted the government to prioritise two things. “First, the government should repair any cracks/leaks in the tanks and second, the radiation level should be reduced so that people in the surrounding areas are safe from the emissions,” he said. There are at least seven villages located up to a radius of 3 km from the site.

HT tried to reach out to AMD officials but no one was willing to go on record on the matter citing a government gag order.

But according to a source, AMD took note of mainstream media and social media reports and sent a team of experts from the nuclear division to the site and thorough inspection revealed that “some miscreants may have tried to dig in thereby causing the cracks which have been accordingly repaired.” The visits took place on September 22 and October 6, the source said.

When queried if the state government has communicated to them on the expert panel till date, the source replied in the negative. “However we have received a set of questions from the Assembly and the same have been sent to our headquarters for response.”

On the claim of high levels of radiation emanating from the spot, the source said it could be a possible misreading of the gadget from “micro to milli” but did not elaborate any further.

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