MAY 28

Arsenic runs through this river

Manoj Prasad

Dakra, May 27: Geologists call it arsenic, chemists term it heavy metal, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is more direct and, perhaps, closer to the truth: it calls the mineral compound a ‘violent poison.’ Call it by any name, what remains unchanged is that arsenic is being blamed for contaminating the waters of the Damodar river, a source of water and life to thousands.

The arsenic is laced in the coal that’s available in abundance on the banks of the river, which originates from Mahuamilan 25 kms from here and flows on to the Bay of Bengal. Coal mining here is an activity that dates back to British rule and the late nineteenth century.

These days, the public sector Central Coalfields Ltd has a dozen odd mine projects located on both banks of the Damodar in Dakra and Rajrappa in Hazaribagh and in Bokaro.

Though CCL officials deny arsenic contamination, CCL personnel, be it the Chief General Manager or the peon, drink water purified by Geolite or Aquaguard filters. But most of Dakra’s 11,500-odd people must draw water from the Damodar for their sustenance. Though the blazing sun is drying up water source after water source in the country, Dakra’s wells are flush, but with greyish-blue water. ‘‘Those who were drinking the river water are suffering from several skin diseases,’’ said a CCL doctor on condition of anonymity.

‘‘From these coal mines in Jharkhand, the Damodar carries arsenic to West Bengal and finally to the Bay of Bengal,’’ says Dr Nitish Priyadarshi, a doctorate in geology from Ranchi University who conducted a study sponsored by the Central Government’s Science and Technology department on ‘Distribution and behaviour of arsenic in the permial coal of north Karnpura’.

He bases his claim on two tests on water samples collected from the upper and lower areas of the river in Rohini, Piparwar, Kerketta and Dakra, the headquarter of the CCL’s NK project which was funded by the World Bank. These tests were separately conducted last year at two public sector companies — Mecon (India) Ltd and RDCIS, a subsidiary of SAIL Labs.

‘‘The presence of arsenic and lead was above tolerance level in the sediments and below tolerance level in the surface water of the river Damodar,’’ says the study. ‘‘And Dakra mine is the first spot in the 350 km long river where the arsenic was detected.’’

The Damodar’s contamination has already raised the hackles of local environmentalists. The Ranchi based NGO Abhiyan held a padyatra to protest the arsenic contamination of the river at Panchet (Dhanbad), Piparwar (Hazaribagh) and Bokaro. They also commissioned a film, Damodar Ek Marti Nadi. ‘‘In this film we have quoted a number of people who were afflicted with skin diseases caused by arsenic,’’ said Shekhar, the film’s director.

Among the ailments slow and steady arsenic poisoning causes is dermatitis, eczema, ulceration and pigmentation of skin and cancer. Doctors at the CCL-run hospital who have treated 1,826 patients till May 24 this year, said three out of five patients suffered either from dermatitis, eczema, scabies or gastroentritis. The Dakra based CCL hospital Superintendent A.K.Das told The Indian Express that he was still to screen the medical reports of these patients.

But CCL’s Superintending Engineer (environment) P.Kumar says there is no co-relation between these diseases and the river. ‘‘We test the water every month. We have found a high percentage of iron and mangenese, but the lead and arsenic were always found to be below detectable limits,’’ said Kumar adding, ‘‘The reported detection of arsenic is baffling. But if the researcher lets us know where he gathered the water samples from, we are ready to have a joint test conducted to establish the truth.’’

It’s not just arsenic that’s laced the river with pollution. The persistent mining on the river banks to reach the seams of coal beneath have dug up the earth’s surface crust, and the ‘‘overburden’’ of clay, metals and boulders were dumped on the river bank, forming an artificial hill range.

S. Samanta, CCL’s Deputy Superintending Engineer (Environment), admits: ‘‘The overburden was dumped on the bank to create an embankment in order to prevent the Damodar waters from gushing into the mine. Eventually, this may have become a source of water pollution as the rain water carried with it the over burden and its toxic elements into the Damodar river.’’