1984 Bhopal Tragedy - Online Article

Key Facts

On December 3rd, 1984, thousands of people in Bhopal, India, were gassed to death after a catastrophic chemical leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. More than 150,000 people were left severely disabled - of whom 22,000 have since died of their injuries - in a disaster now widely acknowledged as the world's worst-ever industrial disaster.

More than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases turned Bhopal into a gas chamber. None of the six safety systems at the plant were functional, and Union Carbide's own documents prove the company designed the plant with 'unproven' and 'untested' technology, and cut corners on safety and maintenance in order to save money.

Today, twenty years after the Bhopal disaster, at least 50,000 people are too sick to work for a living, and a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed that the children of gas-affected parents are themselves afflicted by Carbide's poison.

Carbide is still killing in Bhopal. The chemicals that Carbide abandoned in and around their Bhopal factory have contaminated the drinking water of 20,000 people. Testing published in a 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women living near the factory.

Although Dow Chemical acquired Carbide's liabilities when it purchased the company in 2001, it still refuses to address its liabilities in Bhopal.

That Night

Death came out of a clear sky. Midnight, a cold wind blowing, the stars brilliant as they are in central India, even through the thin pall of cooking-fire smoke that hung above the city. Here and there, braziers were burning to warm those who were obliged to be out late. From the factory which so many had learned to fear, a thin plume of white vapor began streaming from a high structure. Caught by the wind, it became a haze and blew downward to mix with smokes coming from somewhere nearer to the ground. A dense fog formed. Nudged by the wind, it rolled across the road and into the alleys on the other side. Here the houses were packed close, ill-built, with badly-fitting doors and windows. Those within were roused in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases already in their eyes, noses and throats. It burned terribly, it felt like fire.

"Those who fell were not picked up by anybody; they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives ' even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran."

In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many were crushed in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas.

"The force of the human torrent wrenched children's hands from their parents' grasp. Families were whirled apart,". "The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people was reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion."

Map of the that Industrial Area

How many thousands died, no one knows

or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. The official death toll to date (local government figures) stands at more than 20,000 and even now, twenty years later, at least one person per day dies in Bhopal from the injuries they sustained on THAT NIGHT.

Disaster by Design

Bhopal is not only a disaster, but a corporate crime. It began as a classic instance of corporate double-standards: Union Carbide was obliged to install state-of-the-art technology in Bhopal, but instead used inferior and unproven technology and employed lax operating procedures and maintenance and safety standards compared to those used in its US 'sister-plant'. The motive was not simply profit, but also controls: the company saved $8 million, and through this deliberate under-investment managed to retain a majority share of its Indian subsidiary. It should have come as no surprise to Carbide's management when its factory began to pose a chronic threat to its own workers and to the people living nearby.

On December 25, 1981, a leak of phosgene killed one worker, at the plant and severely injured two others. On January 9, 1982, twenty five workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. During the "safety week" proposed by management to address worker grievances about the Bhopal facility, repeated incidents of such toxic leakage took place and workers took the opportunity to complain directly to the American management officials present. In the wake of these incidents, workers at the plant demanded hazardous duty pay scales commensurate with the fact that they were required to handle hazardous substances. These requests were denied. Yet another leak on October 5, 1982 affected hundreds of nearby residents requiring hospitalization of large numbers of people residing in the communities surrounding the plant. After the release ' which included quantities of MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform ' the worker's union printed hundreds of posters which they distributed throughout the community.

Opposition legislators raised the issue in the State Assembly and the clamor surrounding these incidents culminated in a 1983 motion that urged the state government to force the company to relocate the plant to a less-populated area

In the midst of this clamor, in May 1982, Union Carbide sent a team of U.S. experts to inspect the Bhopal plant as part of its periodic safety audits. This report, which was forwarded to Union Carbide's management in the United States, speaks unequivocally of a "potential for the release of toxic materials" and a consequent "runaway reaction" due to "equipment failure, operating problems, or maintenance problems." In fact, the report goes on to state rather specifically: "Deficiencies in safety valve and instrument maintenance programs.... Filter cleaning operations are performed without slip blinding process. Leaking valves could create serious exposure during this process." In its report, the safety audit team noted a total of 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units. It had warned of a 'higher potential for a serious incident or more serious consequences if an accident should occur.' Though the report was available to senior U.S. officials of the company, nothing was done. In fact, according to Carbide's internal documents, a major cost-cutting effort (including a reduction of 335 men) was undertaken in 1983, saving the company $1.25 million that year.

Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant's safety systems were allowed to fall into disrepair. Between 1983 and 1984, the safety manuals were re-written to permit switching off the refrigeration unit and shutting down the vent gas scrubber when the plant was not in operation. Cost-cutting measures directed by the Danbury Headquarters of Union Carbide included reducing the MIC plant crew from 12 to 6. In the control room, there was only 1 operator to monitor 70+ panels. Safety training was cut from 6 months to 15 days. On the night of the deadly MIC leak, none of the safety systems designed to prevent a leak - six in all - were operational, and the plant siren had been turned off.

The process safety system included a design modification installed in May 1984 on the say-so of US engineers. This 'jumper line', a cheap solution to a maintenance problem, connected a relief valve header to a pressure vent header and enabled water from a routine washing operation to pass between the two, on through a pressure valve, and into MIC storage tank 610. Carbide's initial investigation agreed that the pressure valve was leaking but declined to mention the jumper line. Exposure to this water led to an uncontrolled reaction; a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methyl amine soon settled over much of Bhopal, and people began to die.

The Second Tragedy

Yet when the Independent speaks of "rape", the Guardian of "disgrace" and Jon Snow of "a crime against humanity", they are not talking about THAT NIGHT - but of what has happened since to those who survived it. Today, 20 years after the disaster, Bhopal remains a humanitarian disaster. Their breathless bodies no longer able to push handcarts and lift heavy loads, thousands have fallen into destitution and their families have learned the lessons of the abyss, binding cloths round their middles to give an illusion of fullness, giving children unable to sleep from hunger water to fill their empty bellies. The factory, which killed so many, lies empty now and derelict, with the weather battering at it. Union Carbide left without cleaning it up. Tanks full of toxic chemicals have corroded and burst, dumping their contents onto the ground. Winds batter at loose metal sheets and gradually the buildings come apart. Worst of all, twenty monsoons (three months of heavy rain each year) have washed the toxins Carbide left behind deep into the soil, poisoning the drinking water of the same people Carbide gassed 20 years ago.

According to former workers of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, while the factory was in operation, massive amounts of chemicals - including pesticides, solvents, catalysts and wastes - were routinely dumped in and around the factory grounds. These include deadly substances such as aldicarb, carbonyl, mercury, and several chlorinated chemicals and organic poisons. In 1977, Carbide constructed Solar Evaporation Ponds (SEPs) over 14 hectares 400 meters north of its factory. Toxic effluents and toxic wastes were routinely dumped there. Two tube wells dug in the vicinity of the SEPs were abandoned because of the noxious smell and taste of the water.

A 1990 study by the Bhopal Group for Information and Action found di- and trichlorobenzene in water samples taken from wells being used by communities living near the factory fence lines, and phthalates, chlorinated benzenes and aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil samples taken from the SEPs. In 1996, the State Research Laboratory conducted its own tests on water and concluded that the chemical contamination found is 'due to chemicals used in the Union Carbide factory that have proven to be extremely harmful for health. Therefore the use of this water for drinking must be stopped immediately.'

In 1999, Greenpeace and Bhopal community groups documented the presence of stockpiles of toxic pesticides (including Sevin and hexachlorocyclohexane) as well as hazardous wastes and contaminated material scattered throughout the factory site. The survey found substantial and, in some locations, severe contamination of land and water supplies with heavy metals and chlorinated chemicals. Samples of groundwater from wells around the site showed high levels of chlorinated chemicals including chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, indicative of long-term contamination. Over the years, the groundwater supplying an estimated 20,000 Bhopal residents has become heavily contaminated by Union Carbide's toxic by-products.

Lead, nickel, copper, chromium, hexachlorocyclohexane and chlorobenzene were also found in soil samples. Mercury in some sediment samples was found to be between 20,000 and 6 million times the expected levels. According to a 2002 study by the Fact Finding Mission on Bhopal, many of Union Carbide's most dangerous toxins can now be found in the breast milk of mothers living around the factory. Yet Dow Chemical, Union Carbide's new owner, has suggested that the polluted, not the polluter, should pay for any cleanup.

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