It may have caused some industrial safety procedures to improve, but the survivors of the tragic Bhopal gas disaster are still fighting for compensation
It may have caused some industrial safety procedures to improve, but the survivors of the tragic Bhopal gas disaster are still fighting for compensationThe Bhopal gas leak is one of the worst industrial disasters in history. It demonstrates what can happen when safety measures are overlooked.
On December 3 1984, methyl isocyanate or MIC, an extremely toxic gas, started leaking from a chemical plant majority-owned by Union Carbide in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state, India. Within hours, deadly MIC clouds engulfed the city.
Union Carbide says 3,800 people died and thousands became permanently or temporarily disabled by the toxic gas, a figure that the government of India does not dispute.
But more than a dozen NGOs campaigning for justice on behalf of victims for 25 years say the real number of deaths is much larger. “At least 7,000 people were killed within the first 72 hours of the leak,” says Karuna Raina, a Greenpeace India campaigner who leads the Bhopal gas campaign. She says more than 25,000 people have since died of exposure-related illnesses.
The ground and water contamination has led to increased incidents of births of deformed babies in the area. Bhopal Medical Appeal, a UK-based charity that supports a clinic in Bhopal to treat the victims, says that more than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site.
Union Carbide, which is now owned by The Dow Chemical Company, and the activists offer diametrically opposite accounts of what led to the deadly disaster.
The company claims that a disgruntled employee sabotaged the plant. An investigation by the consulting firm Arthur D Little, hired by Union Carbide, also concluded that sabotage may have caused the gas leak. The theory was never proven and no suspect was ever named.
A central piece of Union Carbide’s defence rests on the ownership structure of Union Carbide India Limited, as the Indian entity that owned the Bhopal plant was known. Union Carbide says it only had slightly over 50% stake in UCIL while the rest was owned by Indian public and local institutional investors. The company says it never controlled daily operations of the plant and hence is not legally liable for the disaster.
Activists put the blame squarely on the company. “There is ample evidence that Union Carbide monitored day-to-day operations from the US headquarters,” says Rachna Dhingra, coordinator of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, a leading NGO campaigning to seek justice for the victims.
She also says the parent company Union Carbide sold to its Indian arm an unproven technology to produce MIC.
Bhopal-based activist groups point to a number of reported health and safety lapses at the plant, poor maintenance of equipment and management negligence as responsible for the accident. They say their own investigations and thousands of documents, including the company’s internal memos submitted by various parties in courts in the US and India in the course of multiple lawsuits, indicate the company ignored and even hid safety risks.
Reports of safety lapses in the plant had started surfacing in 1981, three years before the disaster, when a minor gas leak killed a Union Carbide employee inside the plant.
A local journalist Rajkumar Keswani started investigating the killing of the employee and made secret visits to the plant. He published a series of reports between 1982 and June 1984 exposing safety lapses in the plant. The headline of his first article in September 1982 screamed: “Save, please, this city.”
His last report was published in a national Hindi newspaper Jansatta and local newspapers in June 1984 in which he warned of the impending disaster. Six months later catastrophe struck.
Cutting costs and safety
A principal lesson from the Bhopal disaster is the stark danger of cutting costs where industrial safety is concerned.
Activists say the company not only denied reports of safety lapses, but it also started cutting costs including downsizing the maintenance department as the company was losing money. At the beginning of 1984, the Bhopal plant reported a loss of $4m while Union Carbide’s global profit fell from $800m three years earlier to just $79m.
Documents obtained by campaign groups such as the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and several others, and submitted in various courts, paint a horrifying picture in the run-up to the final disaster.
Plagued by losses, Union Carbide decided to sell the parts of the plant except the MIC unit. Activists claim that the company increased the volume ceiling of MIC storage from 60% to a dangerous level of 80% by amending the safety manual in April 1984.
Dhingra says the company also cut training for MIC plant operators from the original six months to only 15 days. “They shut down the MIC refrigeration plant to save $70 a day.”
In August 1984, the plant union wrote to the management threatening to sue the company for pollution from the MIC plant. The plant general manager rejected their claims. But an internal safety report, now in the possession of activists, from September 1984 cast serious doubts of the effectiveness of the company’s safety programme.
In October, Union Carbide asked the local management to close the plant and sell it to any available buyer. The company also appointed a local safety officer to study the feasibility of dismantling the MIC plant for selling to overseas buyers. In November, the officer warned against dismantling because of a “high level of corrosion at several points”.
On November 26, the company eliminated the position of maintenance supervisor on the second and third shifts. On the night of December 2, operators noticed a small leak from the MIC plant and reported to supervisors. Apparently, no action was taken. The tank exploded the next night releasing the deadly gas into the air.
But Union Carbide denies these claims of campaigners. Campaigners say the company has been using its financial muscle to hire a battery of expensive lawyers to block cases in courts on technical grounds.
Four months after the disaster, Union Carbide offered $7m as relief after the government of India filed a lawsuit in a US court seeking $3bn in damages. The company raised the offer to $350m in 1986.
In the meantime, the government of India enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985 that enabled the government to act as legal representatives of the victims.
Finally, the company and the government settled for $470m in 1989 immediately after a Bhopal court issued arrest warrants against the Union Carbide chairman and chief executive Warren Anderson. The settlement absolved the company of all future civil and criminal liabilities in the case.
The final $470m settlement included $270m paid by Union Carbide’s insurers in claims.
The government of India has released only a small part of the settlement sum to the victims. Even today, the government is sitting on $370m while victims and their families continue to campaign to receive the compensation. Bureaucratic hassles have delayed the disbursement, campaigners say.
In 1994, Union Carbide eventually sold its entire 50.9% stake in the Indian plant to McLeod Russell, an Indian company which renamed Union Carbide India Limited as Eveready Industries.
Mysteriously, in 1998 the Madhya Pradesh government, which had leased the land for the plant, repossessed it and assumed all accountability for the facility, including the site clean-up.
In 1999, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, making the merged entity the largest chemicals company in the world. Union Carbide is still in operation, but as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow.
Campaigners allege that Union Carbide sold the plant without cleaning up the site. The chemical spill, they say, has seriously contaminated the ground water in the area leading to increased birth defects and rise in other diseases.
A Greenpeace report in 1999 said it found 12 volatile organic chemicals and mercury in quantities up to six million times higher than World Health Organisation levels in the water and soil samples collected near the site.
Union Carbide says it engaged in the site clean-up after the incident until it sold the unit to Eveready Industries in 1994. The company says responsibility for the clean-up of the site lies with the Madhya Pradesh state government, which today controls the site.
Campaigners now want Dow Chemical to assume all liabilities for the site clean-up under the “polluter pays” principle as it now owns Union Carbide. India’s ministry of chemicals has asked Dow Chemical to pay $22m for the cleaning up of the site. The company has rejected the demand and refused to accept any liability.
Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick says such efforts are misdirected. “Dow acquired shares of Union Carbide in 2001, seven years after UCIL became Eveready Industries and more than 10 years after Union Carbide settled its liabilities with the Indian government in 1989 by paying $470m,” he says.
“Union Carbide never owned or operated the UCIL plant site and, therefore, there were no liabilities for Dow to inherit through Union Carbide on the Bhopal issue,” Sprick says.
Dhingra disagrees that Dow has no liability. “Dow accepted the asbestos liability of Union Carbide in the US. But when it comes to India, they have a complete double standard,” she says.
Sprick says Union Carbide accepted “moral responsibility” for the tragedy and provided immediate and continuing aid to the victims.
He says the $470m legal settlement with the Indian government in 1989 settled all claims arising from the incident. “The government took responsibility for the Bhopal victims’ short-term needs, negotiating a settlement and distributing funds, and addressing future needs.”
Dhingra argues that $470m is a paltry sum – it translates to just over $1,000 per victim.
Raina from Greenpeace points out that the $470m settlement does not recognise inter-generational rights. The second generation victims with birth defects or illnesses due to continuing contamination cannot claim compensation from the settlement fund, she explains.
As for campaigners, they are still fighting the legal battle against the company and hope to prove these charges in courts one day. A civil case in the New York district court and a criminal case in a Bhopal court are still pending against Anderson and nine other Union Carbide executives. Another case is pending in Madhya Pradesh high court against Dow Chemical.
The hard lessons
Sprick says Union Carbide and the rest of the chemicals industry learnt valuable lessons from the Bhopal disaster. These include the need to develop contingency plans to deal with emergencies, involving the public in risk management, reducing inventories of hazardous chemicals at the site, finding safer substitute chemicals, evaluating measures to reduce the seriousness of an accident and establishing threat-of-violence programmes.
“Union Carbide, together with the rest of the chemical industry, has worked to develop and globally implement its ‘Responsible Care’ programme, designed to prevent any future events through improving community awareness, emergency preparedness and process safety standards,” Sprick says.
Responsible Care, a certification scheme launched in 1988, remains the chemical industry’s flagship programme on environment, health, safety and security.
Campaigners say India, however, has learnt no lessons from the disaster. They give the example of the currently proposed nuclear liability bill. The bill fixes the maximum amount of liability in cases of each nuclear accident at 5bn rupees (£76m) to be paid by the plant operator. The bill also exempts suppliers of nuclear plant equipment from any liability in case of an accident.
Recently submitted to the Indian parliament, the bill is being opposed by all major opposition parties and environmental and human rights activists. They argue that the government is including such provisions under pressure from the global nuclear industry lobby.
“The nuclear liability bill is a stark example that the government of India has learnt nothing from the Bhopal disaster,” Dhingra says.
This is the third part of our series of classic examples of corporate irresponsibility and mistakes. Next month we examine the McLibel case.
The Bhopal disaster timeline
December: A gas leak kills a worker at the Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant.
February: The plant union writes a letter to management protesting at danger posed by poor maintenance of the plant equipment.
March: A Bhopal lawyer serves a legal notice on the company stating that the plant poses a serious health and safety risk to workers and community. The company denies the charge.
A local journalist published a series of investigative reports exposing serious safety lapses in the plant, warns of impending disaster between 1982 and June 1984. The company keeps denying.
December 3: Shortly after midnight, methyl isocyanate gas leaks from a tank at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Thousands of people are killed by the toxic gas and tens of thousands experience permanent disability.
December 4: Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson rushes from company headquarter in Connecticut to Bhopal with a technical team.
Anderson is detained upon arrival and charged with culpable homicide, or manslaughter, causing death by negligence and released on bail. He is asked by the Indian government to leave the country within 24 hours to save him from the angry public.
February: Union Carbide establishes a relief fund for victims of the tragedy that collects $120,000.
March: A Union Carbide technical team concludes that a large volume of water was introduced into the MIC tank and triggered a reaction that resulted in the gas release.
April: The government of India files suit against Union Carbide for $3bn in a New York court.
April: Company offers $7m relief. The government of India rejects the offer.
March: Union Carbide proposes $350m as settlement for victims and families.
May: Independent investigation by the consulting firm Arthur D Little, hired by Union Carbide, concludes that the gas leak could only have been caused by sabotage.
November: India’s supreme court asks the government and the company to arrive at a settlement.
February: A Bhopal court issues arrest warrants against Warren Anderson for failing to appear before the court in spite of several summons. A few days later the company and the government agree to a $470m final settlement.
Activists challenge the settlement and file a petition in the Indian supreme court.
October: The supreme court rejects petitions and confirms the settlement but revokes the criminal immunity granted to Union Carbide and its officials
November: A Bhopal court revives the criminal proceedings against Anderson and others.
A Bhopal court declares Anderson a fugitive as he fails to appear before court, the judge asks the government to seek extradition of Anderson from the US.
Union Carbide wants to sell its entire stake (50.9%) in the Indian subsidiary and put the money in a charitable trust. Activists challenge the decision.
The US supreme court declines to hear appeals by activists implying that victims cannot sue the company in the US.
The Indian supreme court allows Union Carbide to sell its stake in its Indian subsidiary. $90m from the sale goes to a trust to build a hospital in Bhopal. The hospital opens in 2001.
Dow Chemical Company acquires Union Carbide to become the world’s largest chemical company; merger completed in 2001.
Government of India makes a formal request to the US to extradite Anderson.
The US government turns down India’s request to extradite Anderson.
New class action suits filed in New York federal court seeking damages from water contamination in the neighbourhood of the Bhopal plant, still under review.
Sources: Union Carbide website and International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.