Eighteen years on, new critical evidence on Bhopal disaster

Chemical company Union Carbide may have been more responsible than it has claimed for the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed 8,000 people immediately and injured at least 150,000.

According to an article in the latest copy of New Scientist magazine, documents just released in the US suggest that the company that built and owned the Bhopal chemical plant in India cut crucial corners in its design.

In February 2001, Union Carbide was bought by US giant Dow Chemical. Dow still insists that Carbide’s Indian subsidiary was wholly responsible for the design and running of the plant. “Union Carbide maintained a very hands-off relationship with Union Carbide India on virtually all matters,” a spokesman for Dow told the New Scientist.

However, the newly released documents suggest otherwise. A 1972 memo says that if Carbide issued enough shares to raise the US$28 million estimated cost for the plant, the company’s stake in its Indian subsidiary would drop below 53%. To prevent this, it would have to ‘reduce the amount of investment … to US$20.6 million”, with the cuts mostly on the project producing the insecticide Sevin.

The memo also specified that the US headquarters would either perform all design work for the Bhopal plant, or approve designs done elsewhere.

A second memo admitted that this would require the use of unproven technologies. Although these were mostly on systems not involved in the accident, the Sevin production system involved in the accident had had “only a limited trial run”.

New Scientist’s investigation into the accident, and subsequent studies by the company and trade unions, showed that a faulty valve let nearly a tonne of water being used to clean pipes pour into a tank holding 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, an intermediate in the production of Sevin. The resulting runaway reaction produced a cloud of toxic gas.

The company still claims that the accident was an act of sabotage, but whether this is true or not, the gas should have been contained, says the New Scientist. It wasn’t, largely because of the limited emergency equipment at the plant compared to the company’s corresponding plant in the US.

There was no ‘knock-down’ tank where the gas might have settled, and the plant’s one flare tower had been shut down for repairs. The US plant has a back-up. The sole scrubber at the plant was subsequently overwhelmed by the volume of toxic gas boiling up at a rate 100 times that which it was designed for.

Also, unlike the US plant, Bhopal’s waste was poured into open lagoons to evaporate. Analyses by Indian agencies found that there was no local contamination, and yet recent analyses of groundwater, soil and people near the plant have found high levels of heavy metals and organochloine chemicals. Company memos from 1989, 1990 and 1995 show that Carbide’s officials knew by 1989 that the Indian analyses were suspect and that there might be contamination.

Meanwhile in India, there have been protests in marking the anniversary of the disaster. Hundreds of women survivors marched on 2 December to the Indian headquarters of Dow and delivered soil and water from around the abandoned factory.

Survivors say that they received around US$500 each in compensation from the company.

According to Union Carbide, however, the company’s concern for the victims of Bhopal did not begin or end with the settlement. The company offered more than US$20 million in aid in addition to the eventual settlement, and in 1985 provided a US$2.2 million grant to Arizona State University to establish a vocational-technical training centre for Bhopal’s citizens. A further US$20 million has been provided for a local hospital.

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