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India: Toxic sludge leak from Vedanta’s red mud pond threatens rural communities

    June 01, 2011

    Amnesty International has warned that thousands of families in the Indian state of Orissa are facing serious health risks during the imminent monsoon season following reports of leaks at the Vedanta Aluminium refinery’s main ‘red mud pond’, a vast reservoir of toxic residue.

    The organization has obtained video footage taken by people living in the Lanjigarh area showing two recent serious breaches of the pond following heavy rains, with gushing liquid flowing onto nearby roads.

    An estimated four to five thousand families in 12 villages are threatened by the leaks, which could worsen during heavy monsoon rains.

    “Vedanta and the authorities must take action – with rainy season approaching the situation is a ticking time bomb. The red mud pond poses a serious threat to the health, livelihoods and safety of the local people” said Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, Amnesty International’s South Asia Researcher.

    The red mud pond is an estimated 92 billion litre cocktail of toxic residue that includes radioactive elements from the process of refining bauxite. Last year, spills from a red mud pond in Hungary which leaked into the Danube led to deaths, serious injuries and widespread environmental damage.

    The Vedanta refinery and the red mud pond are situated only a kilometre from the river Vamsadhara, the region’s main water source; four villages are very close to the refinery and eight others are downstream of the river.

    Local people have protested that they have not being given any information by Vedanta Aluminium or the government about efforts to prevent further leaks.

    Vedanta Aluminium denies that there were any spills from the red mud pond but has reportedly repaired the damaged areas. Amnesty International is however not aware of any attempts by the company to assess pollution of land and water caused by the reported leaks, or to clean up any damage that has occurred. 

    “Vedanta must stop pumping into the red mud pond – and make clear what steps it will take to avert a potential disaster for the thousands of families who live nearby.” added Ramesh Gopalakrishnan.

    The Orissa State Pollution Control Board has in the past pointed to concerns around the red mud pond’s design and maintenance.

    On 11 May 2011, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board visited Lanjigarh to study the situation at the red mud pond, but has not made its findings public.

    Notes to Editors

    Background:

    The refinery and red mud pond in India are owned and operated by the Vedanta Aluminium, a subsidiary of the UK-based Vedanta Resources Plc. Local communities – mainly Majhi Kondh adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit communities who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods – have consistently raised concerns over the risks posed by the 28 hectare main red mud pond that is currently in use and the construction of an additional 60 hectare red mud pond, which is not yet operational. They have also been campaigning against Vedanta’s proposal for expansion of the refinery, arguing it would further pollute their land and water.

    During 2007-2009, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board highlighted concerns about the red mud pond's design and maintenance, including queries about construction, and evidence of seepage of alkaline waste water (pH of 11.06) from the pond. Vedanta’s proposal for the expansion of its refinery at Lanjigarh is currently pending before the Orissa High Court after the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected it in October 2010, finding that the project violated the country’s environmental laws.

    In Don’t Mine us out of Existence: Bauxite Mine and Refinery Devastate Lives in India issued in February 2010, Amnesty International highlighted serious concerns about negative impacts of the refinery’s operations on the rights to water, health and livelihoods of the communities living in proximity to the refinery. Amnesty International called on the authorities to take prompt action to prevent any further contamination of the river and to address existing problems. The organization also recommended that Vedanta urgently and fully address the existing negative environmental, health, social and human rights impacts of the refinery at Lanjigarh, in genuine and open consultation with the affected communities.

    Audio-visual material:

    Video:
    Video shot by local communities (1 min 48 secs) and includes footage of:
    - Vedanta refinery and surrounding area
    - Leaks and overspill of the Red Mud Pond during May 2011
    - Interview with local resident
    - Footage of the red mud pond spill in Danube in 2010
    Click here for full video:  
    Video shot by local communities (1 min 48 secs) and includes footage of:
    - Vedanta refinery and surrounding area
    - Leaks and overspill of the Red Mud Pond during May 2011
    - Interview with local resident
    - Footage of the red mud pond spill in Danube in 2010

    Beth Berton-Hunter,
    Media Relations,
    Amnesty International Canada
    416-363-9933, ext. 332