INDIA: Scientist blames Bhopal gas leak on design and maintenance problems

Poor maintenance and faulty design caused the cyanide gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984 that killed nearly 4,000 people, a scientist has told a court in India according to an Associated Press report.

The scientist, KS Vardharajan, also said Union Carbide had failed to notify the Indian Government and health officials that the factory was being used to store such large amounts of toxic methyl isocyanate gas.

Vardharajan was appearing as a witness in the trial of seven Indian employees of Union Carbide who face charges of negligence and of causing grievous injury in connection with the leak.

Vardharajan said that the plant had used carbon steel valves which corroded when they came into contact with acid, allowing the toxic gas to escape. He also alleged that the cooling system that kept the gas at a low temperature had not been working for a month prior to the leak and that information about methyl isocyanate was not made immediately available by the company, hampering relief efforts.

Union Carbide’s chairman at the time of the accident, Warren Anderson, has refused to appear in an Indian court on manslaughter charges. The Indian Government has been unable to extradite him from the US.

Greenpeace International’s campaigner in India does not think the latest allegations will lead to further action against Union Carbide. “I don’t see this proceeding any further,” Nityanand Jayaraman told edie, “until the US and Indian Governments get their act together to extradite the defendants in the case.”

The Union Carbide factory was closed on December 3 1984 after the leak. The state government of Madhya Pradesh reported that approximately 3,800 persons died, 40 persons were left with permanent total disability, and 2,680 persons were left with permanent partial disability. According to a survivor’s organisation, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), 10 to 15 people die every month from exposure related complications. Greenpeace says the current death toll is well over 16,000 with over 500,000 injuries.

Union Carbide has so far paid the Indian Government $470 million in an out-of-court settlement and accepted moral responsibility for the disaster. Around 600,000 people have filed for compensation with the Indian Government.

An official investigation blamed the gas leak on the actions of a disgruntled plant employee who added water to a storage tank. It is claimed that the water caused a reaction that built up heat and pressure in the tank, creating a lethal gas. Environmentalists and other protest groups dispute this, blaming corporate negligence.

A recent Greenpeace report, The Bhopal Legacy, shows that the factory site is still contaminated by chemicals such as mercury and organochlorines. Some of the organochlorines found in groundwater supplying the neighbouring communities are known to have been used at the plant during its routine operations. The levels of mercury found in a sample taken in May 1999 from a location within the factory, were between 20,000 and six million times higher than background levels which would be expected in uncontaminated soils.(see related story).

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