Darkest before dawn
While the city of Bhopal slept on the night of 3–4 December 1984, they were unaware of the 27 tonnes of toxic gases that leaked from the Union Carbide Plant, exposing half a million people to a poisonous gas cloud containing methyl isocyanate, and possibly carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, phosgene, hydrogen cyanide and momomethyl amine.
Ten thousand people were dead within 72 hours, and twenty-five years later the death toll lies at 25,000 and still rising, with over 100,000 people affected. Toxic chemicals abandoned at the UCC plant when the powers-that-be decamped to evade responsibility continue to pollute the ground water, leaving hapless residents still at risk.
Today, the picture remains as bleak as ever, a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), now owned by Dow Chemical Company, in refusing to admit liability, have left thousands of lives and livelihoods on the brink. Survivors grapple with a multitude of long-term health effects, including respiratory, neurological and immune disorders, reproductive health issues, eye problems and more. Birth defects among children due to their mothers being exposed to the poisonous gas remain common.
Burdened by the effects on their bodies, livelihoods have been compromised, pushing those already on the margins into destitution. With key stakeholders such as the government and Dow/Carbide crying off from taking responsibility, the survivors of Bhopal are fighting an uphill battle.
Escape, the best form of defence
As 4 December 1984 dawned, Bhopal woke to its streets covered with dead bodies. Today one person per day still dies because of what happened that night. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary Dow and UCC claim not to be culpable, continuing to pass off the leakage as sabotage. However, investigations have revealed substandard safety standards in the Indian plant, as well as the fact that the MIC tank alarms had not been working for four years. In addition, none of the leak prevention mechanisms were working on the fateful night:
1. Flare Tower: Disconnected
2. Vent Gas Scrubber: Out of caustic soda and inadequate for unsafe volume of gas
3. Water Curtain: Not functional; designed with inadequate height
4. Pressure Valve: Leaking
5. Run Off Tank: Already contained MIC
6. Mandatory Refrigeration for MIC Unit: Shut down for 3 months to save money
Testimonies from workers and independent studies paint a pretty bleak picture:
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, carbaryl, 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 trichlorobenzenes 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… 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.
Facing criminal charges of culpable homicide (manslaughter), the UCC has effectively fled the country. In addition, Dow/Carbide has consistently refused take responsibility to clean up the site and compensate the victims justly.
Some four years after the disaster the Government of India reached a settlement with Union Carbide that was a betrayal to the survivors. Without consulting the people directly affected by the disaster, they settled for a figure that was equivalent to a just 15 per cent of what was originally filed for, and also absolving UCC of other liabilities. Needless to say, the survivors filed a complaint, leading to a part reversal of the settlement, and as of now two cases remain pending. A civil case in the Southern District Federal Court, New York, and a criminal one in Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court, Bhopal. The extradition of Warren Anderson, then CEO of UCC, is also sought, to have him stand trial in India.
Today, a quarter of a century on lives and livelihoods continue to be affected. The 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals from the factory that lie exposed, with burst and corroded tanks that seep their poisonous matter into the earth inexorably with each passing year of heavy monsoon rain, leaves thousands of residents still at risk.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, a coalition of survivors and environmental, social justice, progressive Indian, and human rights groups, has relentlessly been campaigning for Dow/Carbide to own up to its responsibilities, and clean up the site; provide necessary health care to survivors; provide economic and social support to those who have lost their livelihoods due to the exposure; and not to mention stand trial for what the world unequivocally believes to be a horrific “crime against humanity”.
They also campaign with the Governments of India and of Madhya Pradesh to — among other things — ensure Dow’s liability; set up a national commission on Bhopal to clearly articulate a policy for long-term monitoring, care and rehabilitation of survivors; ensure treatment for survivors as well as those exposed to toxic water; clean up drinking water supply; dispose of chemical wastes from the UCC plant; seek the extradition of Warren Anderson; and blacklist Dow and Union Carbide.