DADU, Oct 6: About 90 per cent of people in Dodo Panhwar village in the vicinity of evaporation ponds of the BHP-Zamzama gas plant, 15 kilometres from here, suffer from skin, eye and abdominal diseases apparently because of toxic fumes spreading in the air from the ponds.

Hafiz Abu Bakar Panhwar, who lives in the village which is separated from the ponds by only a narrow road strip, said that the water in the ponds was highly toxic and emitted toxic fumes, which had caused chest diseases among all his family members.

He said that his brother Amanullah Panhwar developed lung cancer because of the fumes and died in August. According to him, the village population stands at 1,500 and, on an average, four out of five people are infected with skin or eye diseases.

Shamsuddin Panhwar, a primary school teacher, said the ponds were emitting foul smell because they were uncovered. Despite such high prevalence of diseases among villagers, the management of the plant had not taken any preventive measures to protect the villagers, he added.

He said that Sadoori Panhwar died about 13 months ago and Shabbir died about 12 months ago of cancer. He said he was not satisfied with the treatment being provided by the clinic in this village run by an NGO and funded by the company.

Ghulam Panhwar said that a delegation of villagers recently met BHP officials and told them ponds were emitting toxic fumes and the water in them had mixed with underground water in the wake of heavy rains.

They requested them to take preventive measures to protect the villagers' health, but their pleas fell on deaf ears because they did not take any action.

Besides Dodo Panhwar village, residents of the villages of Din Mohammad Panhwar, Khan Mohammad Gadehi and Deenar Panhwar were also falling prey to diseases, he said. He said that skin disease was common in these villages. According to the relevant rules and agreement, the BHP was bound to provide basic facilities of education, health, water supply, sanitation, development and jobs to local community, he said.

A villager Mohammad Khan Panhwar said that large fans were used to speed up evaporation of the toxic water in the ponds, which was spreading in nearby villages.

A superficial examination of different groups of school children walking along a road in the village revealed they were all infected with skin diseases.

Dr Karim Mirani, an eye specialist at Johi taluka hospital, said he had recently attended three medical camps near the BHP-Zamzama gas plant and found that every fourth person suffered from eye disease.

Worse, he said, was the fact that eyesight of villagers living near the ponds was also deteriorating. About 1,000 patients were treated at the three medical camps ad of them 300 were eye patients, 300 had skin and 400 had waterborne and other diseases, he said.

Dr Javed Ahmed Dawachh, civil surgeon at Dadu Civil Hospital, said environmental pollution could lead to chest problems among villagers living near the gas plant. Toxic fumes from the ponds can cause skin, eye and waterborne diseases, he said.

Engineer Nasir Memon said that the ponds should be set up at least 500 metres from any human habitation. If the toxic water was seeping down to underground water, it could increase its toxic level and seriously affect human health as well as agriculture, he said.

Aftab Ahmed Mahessar, assistant professor at the Petroleum and Gas Department of the Mehran University, said he had visited the village and observed the ponds. Fresh samples should be taken from the pond and underground water from three to four places for examination, he said, adding it was against environmental rules to keep evaporation ponds near a populated area.

Former Deputy Director of Environmental Protection Agency, Shahid Lutfi, said that if the pond water was leaking and mixing with underground water, it was highly dangerous for human life. Therefore, it should be investigated properly and safety should be provided to people, he advised.

COMPANY VERSION: Humera Malik, an official of the BHP-Zamzama, sent the company's version through email.

She said the ponds at Zamzama plant were used for evaporation of the produced water all the year round and these were considered one of the safest ways of disposing of the produced water.

She said the use of evaporation ponds was an established technique the world over. The ponds are double lined with an impervious HDF (High Density Polyethylene) and GEO-fabric liner which extend to the top of the bund wall. Each individual pond is equipped with a leak detection system for detection of any leakage in the primary liner.

This design ensures that leaks are detected before they enter into environment. The system is monitored on a daily basis for integrity of the liner and we have not come across even a single event of a leak throughout the 20-year life of the unit, according to the email.

Ms Malik said: “National environmental quality standards for effluent discharge do not apply to our case as we are not discharging (effluent) to any receiving water body and this is exclusively mentioned in each monthly report to EPA."