The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 killed thousands of people in the Indian city of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. It was caused by the accidental release of forty tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide pesticide plant located in the heart of the city. This event remains the worst industrial disaster in history, with significant injuries to at least 50,000 people.
The MIC leak began shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984. The vapors killed more than 2,000 people outright and injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000 others, some 6,000 of whom would later die from their injuries.
In November 2004 it was discovered in the course of a BBC investigation that the contamination is still active.
1 Factors leading to the disaster
The Union Carbide plant had been established in 1969 and had expanded to produce carbaryl in 1979; MIC is an intermediate in carbaryl manufacture.
The accident was caused by the introduction of water into MIC holding tanks. The resulting reaction generated large volumes of toxic gas, forcing the emergency release of pressure. The gas escaped while the chemical 'scrubbers' which should have treated the gas were off-line for repairs. Investigations have revealed that several other safety procedures were bypassed (baffle plates to prevent water leaking into the tanks were omitted; tank refrigeration was offline; the flare tower that could burn off escaping gas was offline) and the standard of operations in the Indian plant did not match those at other Union Carbide plants. It was also alleged that these safety procedures were wilfully toned down as a part of "cost cutting operations" at the Indian plant that Union Carbide was involved in at that time. Recent documents that surfaced during a compensation claims case involving New York Federal District revealed that Union Carbide frequently exported "untested technology" to the Indian plant. After the release, the local doctors were not informed of the nature of the gas, thus hampering treatment, and basic disaster management measures (such as blocking all gaps with wet towels) were not planned for.
Union Carbide denies these allegations on its website dedicated to the tragedy.
The majority of deaths and serious injuries were related to pulmonary oedemas, but the gas caused a wide variety of other ailments.
2 Investigation and legal action against Union Carbide
In an out-of-court settlement reached on February 14, 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay USD 470 million for damages it caused in the Bhopal disaster. (The original lawsuit was for USD 3 billion.)
The CEO of Union Carbide at that time, Warren Anderson, who had retired by 1986, was declared a fugitive from law by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992 for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. Orders were passed to the Government of India to press for an extradition from the United States, with whom India had an extradition treaty in place. However, the demanded extradition never materialized. Many activists allege that the Indian government has hesitated to put forth a strong case of extradition to the United States, fearing backlash from foreign investors who have become more important players in the Indian economy following liberalization. A seemingly apathetic attitude from the US government, which has failed to pursue the case, has also led to strong protests in the past, most notably by Greenpeace.
A plea by India's Central Bureau of Investigation to dilute the charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence has since been dismissed by the Indian courts. To date, Anderson is still an absconder before the Indian courts and faces charges that if proven may result in imprisonment of up to 10 years.
Meanwhile, very little of the money from the settlement reached with Union Carbide went to the survivors, and people in the area feel betrayed not only by Union Carbide (and chairman Warren Anderson), but also by their own politicians. On the anniversary of the tragedy, effigies of Anderson and politicians are burnt. In July 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to pay to victims, and families of the dead, the US$330 million remaining in the compensation fund.
Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary, which had operated the Bhopal plant, to an Indian battery manufacturer in 1994. The Dow Chemical Company purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt. Dow has publicly stated several times that the Union Carbide settlement payments have already fulfilled Dow's financial responsibility for the disaster.
On December 3, 2004 Reuters reported DOW company spokesman Jude Finisterra stating they now accept full responsibility and will liquidate Union Carbide to pay the victims and to cleanup the plant site.
3 Ongoing contamination
Ownership issues have led to a stalemate on the issue of cleaning up the plant and its environs of hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste, which has been left untouched. Environmentalists have warned that the waste is a potential minefield in the heart of the city, and the resulting contamination may lead to decades of slow poisoning, and diseases affecting the nervous system, liver and kidneys in humans. Studies have shown that the rates of cancer and other ailments are higher in the region since the event. Activists have demanded that Dow clean up this toxic waste, and have pressed the government of India to demand more money from Dow.
In an investigation broadcast on BBC Radio 5 on November 14, 2004, it was reported that the site is still contaminated with 'thousands' of tons of toxic chemicals, including benzine hexachloride and mercury, held in open containers or loose on the ground. Some areas are reportedly so polluted that anyone entering the area for more than ten minutes is likely to lose conciousness. Rainfall causes run-off, polluting local wells and boreholes, and the results of tests undertaken on behalf of the BBC by accredited water analysis laboratories in the United Kingdom reveal pollution levels in borehole water 500 times the legal maximum in that country. Statistical surveys of local residents, with a control population in a similarly poor area away from the plant, are reported to reveal higher levels of various diseases around the plant.
4 Further Reading
Five Past Midnight in Bhopal : The Epic Story of the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster:Book by Javier Moro,Dominique Lapierre, ISBN 0446530883
5 External links
Website of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal ()
Website of Students for Bhopal, the student network for justice in Bhopal.
A website made by Union Carbide about the Bhopal tragedy.
Greenpeace Bhopal campaign
Greenpeace report on the whereabouts of Warren Anderson
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