Waiting on Erin Brockovich: Locals, land in chokehold of marble plants

Farmers, scientist say industrial waste discharged into crops, water channels

Industrial waste from a marble plant. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD IRFAN/EXPRESS


A farmer with whooping cough, standing on an edge of his field, points at the white chemical residue seeping into his wheat crop field through a small brook that passes through a series of marble plants on the outskirts of Mingora. Catching his breath, he said over the years, the crop has become poisonous because of chemicals discharged from the plants. What he does not mention or realise is that marble is also in the very air he breathes – marble dust ( a by-product) gets into everything in the vicinity.

It’s a story as old as the history of industrialisation and has featured in mainstream Hollywood in movies such as Erin Brockovich. A larger industrial entity or company uses its backyard—the neighbourhood—to dispose harmful waste, affecting the lives of everyone, even those who depend on the company for a job. Yet in Pakistan, few of these cases are academically or scientifically studied, even fewer make it to court.

Withered from within

As expected, marble plants in the area have provided around 1,000 jobs to locals, who cannot help but stay quiet about the glaring drawback.

The air pollution and contamination caused by the release of chemical waste from the plants has left many with serious health conditions like asthma, a farmer, Ghulam Karim, told The Express Tribune. “Even the mucous is white marble-coloured.”

Like many other farmers in the area, Karim also has objections over the establishment of marble plants along the main water channels in the valley. He said earnings from the marble plants brought economic stability, but came with a heavy price – the health of the local populace.

A marbled view of the future

Nasir Jan, another farmer, who has multiple peach orchards and patches of soil to cultivate seasonal vegetables and crops shared that farmers conducted a survey on their own. They found around a dozen marble plants situated on the outskirts of Mingora towards Odigram had affected at least four kilometres of land in the area.

“We cannot cultivate crops on our lands anymore; production has fallen to the lowest possible level,” he explained. He blamed it on the “hazardous chemicals” released from the plants. “There has never been a proper system to tackle the plants, effluents and waste.”

Tackling waste?

Owners of plants claim they have filters which clean the waste and dispose only clean water in the stream. However, Swat Marble Association President Fazal Manan told The Express Tribune, “We belong to an underdeveloped area and cannot apply international methods.” Nevertheless, he added, they have installed filters at plants in a bid to control hazardous chemicals from flowing out, thus allowing “only clean water” to pass into the fields.

Manan said they also have certificates to show from the government that in essence say the water flowing into the fields it is not hazardous to health.

Soil scientist Dr Roshan said not a single plant installed any filters to keep the chemicals from flowing out of the plants and into the water table or channels. “Most of the times, these substances dissolve in water and seep into fields, causing damage to soil.”

He said, “Marble is calcium carbonate and when it is regularly deposited in fertile soil, the surface of soil moves down and a white layer is formed on top which blocks the soil. This results in low-productivity of crops and causes serious health risks.” Roshan said, “If the government does not take action and force the plant owners to install filters and precautionary measures, the inhabitants of the area will be exposed to serious health risks.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2015.