22 years after the Bhopal disaster, justice still hasn't been delivered
On the 2nd December 1984, 22 years ago, the worst disaster in the world history happened in Bhopal, in the Indian province of Madhya Pradesh. When a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide Corporation (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company) failed because of slack maintenance, toxic gas leaked to the shanty towns located all around the plant and killed over 10,000 people immediately and in the following weeks, and another 10,000 people have since died because of the gas exposure. However, the carelessness that caused this massive crime hasn't been properly judged. While Union Carbide Corporation paid several hundred dollars to settle its case against the victims of the disaster, the people that were personally responsible for this catastrophe were not brought to justice.
A pesticide factory that had known many failings during the years before the catastrophe[edit | edit source]
The company owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) had known numerous leaks in the years before the massive leaks that killed thousands of inhabitants all around, and not addressing these issues was clearly a criminal form of negligence from the executives of the American firm. The plant was built in 1969 as a joint partnership between UCC and the Indian government and expanded in 1979. The plant produced UCC's pesticide “Sevin”, which is basically the compound “carbaryl”. The problem was that the process of production included forming Methyl isocyanate (MIC), an extremely toxic compound, that can cause coughing, chest pain, dyspnea, asthma, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, skin damage, and in cases of high exposure pulmonary or lung edema, emphysema and hemorrhages, bronchial pneumonia and death. Bayer subsequently invented a new carbaryl production process that didn't involved the hazardous MIC, albeit at a higher production cost, but UCC chose to cut corners and continued to use its own method although it created an enormous risk for the workers of the factory and the shanty towns built all round it. Even worse, UCC ignored the accumulation of serious incidents that happened in the 1980', proving the high level of risk within the factory. In 1981, a worker was splashed with phosgene and took off his gas mask in his panic, he inhaled important amounts of MIC and died 72 hours later. The following year, in 1982, a leak poisoned 24 workers which were not wearing protective masks because of the carelessness of management. They had to be taken to the hospital. These incidents kept happening, causing poisoning or even burns to the workers of the factory during the years leading to the catastrophe. It was impossible for UCC not to know the level of danger it was exposing the workers to and continuing the production despite the risk was a conscious decision. The UCC executives knew they were potentially sentencing the workers to a horrific death, and they didn't care, as long as the factory continued to generate income for them.
A gas explosion directly caused by lack of maintenance and carelessness[edit | edit source]
The UCC plant stored massive amounts of the hazardous MIC in liquid form, inside three 15000 gallon storage tanks. But in October 1984, one of the tanks started to fail, which meant that the liquid MIC couldn't be pumped out anymore and the level of the tank surpassed the level defined by UCC's safety regulations : the tanks had been designed to hold 30 tons of MIC at most and this tank contained 42 tons of the substance at the end of the year 1984. To make things worse, the safety systems of the factory were in poor condition, which made it impossible to respond to the imminent crisis efficiently. This criminal negligence caused the fatal catastrophe that happened on December 2nd 1984. Because of the state of the valves, water found its way into the faulty tank around 10:30 PM and started a lethal chemical reaction that made the pressure skyrocket. It rose so high and so fast that the supervisors at first believed that the instruments weren't functioning properly... and didn't act decisively to mitigate the imminent disaster. It was only one hour after the catastrophe began, when workers started to feel the effects of the gas, that the staff of the plant started to look for a leak. And when it was detected, the security systems either failed or weren't even working, which prevented any efficient mitigation of the crisis : the refrigeration system which should have cooled down the tank wasn't operational, neither was the flare tower, designed to burn the gas as it escaped, but that was under maintenance and therefore not functioning properly. The result was the bursting of the emergency relief valve around 12:40 AM, which released huge amounts of MIC into the atmosphere. 30 metric tons of MIC were released in the first hour, the total reached 40 metric tons two hours after the explosion, causing massive killings all around the factory.
A catastrophe that killed thousands of workers and inhabitants[edit | edit source]
The safety oversight of the factory staff and the subsequent leak caused the death of thousands of Indians. These people weren't even given the right to try and escape the murderous gas because the outside siren, turned towards the city of Bhopal, only sounded for a short while and then was turned off. Indeed the staff operating the siren hadn't been informed about the situation and assumed that it was just another minor and harmless leak. Worse, the plant staff gave the local police erroneous information to downplay the importance and the lethality of the leak which also contributed to an insufficient evacuation in the shanty towns close to the factory. The consequences of this criminal communication were terrible. The people of Bhopal should have left their houses or at least taken shelter, to avoid exposure to the gas, instead many people opened their doors to understand the source of the commotion and inhaled the MIC. 500,000 people were exposed to the leak, several thousands had died by the morning following the explosion and up to 10,000 died in the first few weeks. This made the Bhopal disaster the most deadly technological catastrophe in the history of mankind and it all happened because UCC didn't want to spend the money needed to guarantee the safety of the factory and put its own profit before the lives of the innocent Indians that worked and lived in the area.
A travesty of justice[edit | edit source]
The people responsible for the Bhopal disaster were never brought to justice and remained safe all their lives, quite unlike the people they killed by their ruthless policies of cutting corners. Just after the catastrophe, the Indian government issued a law enabling it to represent the victims of the catastrophe in court and to sue directly UCC. The Indian government asked that the case be transferred to Indian courts, seeing that the factory was jointly owned between UCC and the Indian State. The request was granted and the suit was examined by the Indian courts. UCC then offered a ridiculously low amount to settle the case : $350 million, whereas the Indian government asked for $3.3 billion. Indeed, the government argued that not only should the family of the dead be properly compensated, but the hundreds of thousands of people that were injured and that were suffering from chronic diseases also needed to be compensated. However, the Indian government ended up caving in and agreed to a settlement of $470 million, an amount immediately paid by UCC, which proves how low the amount was in comparison to the damage inflicted on the Indian people. If this first part of the lawsuit can already be seen as unsatisfactory, the criminal part was nothing short of outrageous. Indeed the people responsible for the disaster evaded justice and never had to face the consequences of their criminal oversight. Warren Anderson, the CEO of UCC during the disaster, was charged with manslaughter in 1991 but never sat in trial in India and the US courts blocked every attempt to have him extradited to India. He died in 2014 without having had to face justice.
The Bhopal disaster must be remembered. 22 years ago, a chemical disaster caused the death of thousands of Indians because of a chemical company that refused to put safety before profit. And this kind of disaster keeps happening, even though quite fortunately, no subsequent disaster has caused such a high death toll. This must make us reconsider our path to development and finally adopt a safer, more environmentally responsible economy.