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Case Against British Geological Survey (BGS) Underway In London - 1 Apr 03

By Sylvia Mortoza

The case against the British Geological Survey (BGS) is, it was negligent in not testing for arsenic when it conducted a pilot project assessing ground water in central and north-eastern Bangladesh in 1992. The water quality survey on 19 wells was recorded in Davies J and Exley C, 1992. BGS Technical Report WD/92/43R. Hydrochemical Character of the Main Aquifer Units of Central and North-eastern Bangladesh and Possible Toxicity of Groundwater to Fish and Humans and "The Hydrogeochemistry of Alluvial Aquifers in Central Bangladesh" by J. Davies. In: Groundwater Quality; H.Nash and GJH McCall (eds). Chapman Hall, 1994,

The abstract to the second paper states "The groundwaters are all of Ca(HCO3)2 type, suitable for crop irrigation and domestic use." This paper appeared three years after the Indian PHED Report of 1991 into the arsenic crisis in West Bengal and in the same year as: Das et al. 1994. Arsenic contamination of six districts in West Bengal, India: the biggest arsenic calamity in the World. Analyst, 199, 168-170. Yet neither of these BGS articles mentions arsenic although, according to experts, the data contains many very clear chemical pointers to its presence (high phosphorus and iron, highish bicarbonate) Although we have no wish to try this case in the media, from the above it would seem the victims of arsenic poisoning do have a strong case against BGS and we will be watching the legal proceedings now underway in London with interest. At the time that a team of British lawyers visited Bangladesh in mid-2001, the number of people suffering from arsenic poisoning was estimated to be 8,000. Since then the number has risen and over 10,000 confirmed cases of poisoning has been recorded. As arsenic poisoning, gangrene, internal damage and many other diseases are some of the effects of drinking arsenic contaminated water on a daily basis, even one case is a case too many.

As 2,000 of these patients are from those areas surveyed by BGS in 1991-92, the lawyers for the Bangladesh Government will argue at a preliminary hearing that the British Geological Survey (BGS) does have a case to answer. A brief idea of events and the legal process is given below to update our readers on developments.

Bangladesh International Action Network (BIAN) indicated they would file a writ petition with the High Court seeking a ban on the installation of new shallow tubewells in the country, after which they would initiate a process for compensation for families of the dead and the affected. They also said they would take the issue to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Barrister Ajmalul Hossain said BIAN was quoted as saying they were equipped with enough facts and figures for proceeding with a public interest case on arsenic poisoning.

Coming closely on the heels of this, the group of British lawyers who came to Bangladesh on a fact-finding mission began to prepare thousands of legal claims on behalf of Bangladeshis suffering from arsenic related illnesses. The team of lawyers from Leigh, Day & Co met 15 arsenic victims in two villages of Chandpur district in May and July, 2001 when the victims asked them to begin the legal action in London.

These two groups joined hands and Brotee gave Leigh, Day and Co, a British Law firm, full support. In addition, the British Legal Aid System gave the go-ahead for preparing the legal claims of those suffering from arsenic related illness against the British Geological Survey (BGS). Others involved in the action include The Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). Compensations ranging from 5000 pounds to 100,000 pounds could be claimed for an arsenic victim of the region depending on the graveness of the damage caused by arsenic poisoning.

Although a BBC reports says, "For many people in Bangladesh it can sometimes be a choice between death by arsenic poisoning or death by diarrhoea," this we dispute because diarrhoea can be prevented and treated whereas arsenic poisoning although preventable by stopping the intake of contaminated water, once the victim reaches the point of no return, he/she cannot be saved and his/her fate is long suffering and a painful death.

Although the case brought by two Bangladeshi residents, Binod Sutradhar and Lucky Begum, who allege that BGS' failure to detect high levels of arsenic in ground water endangered their lives will not bring back the dead, it will give their families a sense of justice served. The only fear now is for a bureaucratic cover- up.


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