Bhopal Disaster

The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 killed thousands of people in the Indian city of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, following the accidental release of forty tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a chemical plant located in the heart of the city. This event was one of the worst industrial disasters in history, with significant injuries to at least 50,000 people.

The MIC leak began shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984. It killed more than 2,000 people outright and injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000 others, some 6,000 of whom would later die from their injuries. The facility responsible was a pesticide plant in the city, owned by Union Carbide. The plant had been established in 1969 and had expanded to produce Sevin in 1979; MIC is an intermediate in Sevin manufacture.

Factors leading to the disaster

The accident was caused by the introduction of water into MIC holding tanks. The resulting reaction generated large volumes of toxic gas, forcing the emergency release of pressure. The gas escaped while the chemical 'scrubbers' which should have treated the gas were off-line for repairs. Investigations have revealed that many safety procedures were bypassed and the standard of operations in the Indian plant did not match those at other Union Carbide plants. It was also alleged that these safety procedures were wilfully toned down as a part of "cost cutting operations" at the Indian plant that Union Carbide was involved in at that time. Recent documents that surfaced during a compensation claims case involving New York Federal District revealed that Union Carbide frequently exported "untested technology" to the Indian plant.

Union Carbide denies these allegations on its website dedicated to the tragedy.

The majority of deaths and serious injuries were related to pulmonary oedemas, but the gas caused a wide variety of other ailments.

Investigation and legal action against Union Carbide

In an out-of-court settlement reached on February 14, 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay USD $470 million to the Indian government for damages it caused in the Bhopal Tragedy. (The original lawsuit was for $3 billion.)

The CEO of Union Carbide at that time, Warren Anderson (who had retired by 1986) was declared a fugitive from law by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992 for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. Orders were passed to the Government of India to press for an extradition from the United States, with whom India had an extradition treaty in place. However, the demanded extradition never materialized. Many activists allege that the Indian government has hesitated to put forth a strong case of extradition to the United States (partly fearing backlash from foreign investors,who have become key players in the Indian economy following liberalization).A seemingly apathetic attitude from the US government, which has failed to pursue the case, has also led to strong protests in the past, most notably by Greenpeace.

A plea by India's Central Bureau of Investigation to dilute the charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence has since been dismissed by the Indian courts. To date, Anderson is still an absconder before the Indian courts and faces charges that if proven may result in imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Meanwhile, very little of the money from the settlement reached with Union Carbide went to the survivors, and people in the area feel betrayed not only by Union Carbide (and chairman Warren Anderson,) but also by their own politicians. On the anniversary of the tragedy, effigies of Anderson and politicians are burnt.

Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary, which had operated the Bhopal plant, to an Indian battery manufacturer in 1994. The Dow Chemical Company (DCC) purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt. DCC has since refused to own any more corporate responsibility for the incident. This has led to a stalemate in the issue of cleaning up the plant and its environs of hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste, which has been left untouched. Environmentalists have recently warned that the waste is a potential minefield in the heart of the city, and the resulting contamination may lead to decades of slow poisoning, diseases affecting the nervous system,liver and kidneys in humans. Studies have shown that the rates of cancer and other ailments are higher in the region since the event. These activists have demanded that DCC own ethical responsibility, and facilitate treatment of the waste at the earliest.

See also: Pesticide poisoning

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