The Axis of Evel Knieval, December 3, 2006
During the early morning hours of 3 December 1984, a tank failure at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, spewed twenty-seven tons deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) fumes into the air, killing thousands within a few hours and leaving hundreds of thousands more with debilitating ailments, including liver and kidney failure, respiratory ailments, menstrual disorders and blindness. The precise number of deaths has remained in dispute — Carbide and the state of Madhya Pradesh claim that 3,800 died, while survivors of Bhopal have placed the figure closer to 8,000 within the first few weeks. Municipal workers who disposed of the bodies in mass graves or funeral pyres claim that the initial death count was at least 15,000. Whatever the actual figures, the dying has continued ever since. Over the past 22 years, over 20,000 more residents of Bhopal have died as a direct consequence of the 1984 leak.
Although it originally functioned as a pesticide plant, the Union Carbide facility in Bhopal failed to meet its high expecations, as India’s farmers quite simply could not afford to buy the company’s products. Although pesticide production had ceased during the early 1980s, tanks loaded with poisons like MIC remained on site. Cost-cutting measures by Union Carbide contributed to the degradation of the numerous safety mechanisms designed to prevent toxic leaks. When an employee error — which Union Carbide continues to insist was an act of “deliberate sabotage” — allowed water to back up into tank E610, at least four systems, including a vent-gas scrubber that could have tetoxified the leaking gas, were either broken or switched off. The water caused the chemicals to overheat, releasing the dense gases into a city that was completely unprepared for a disaster of this scope. Indeed, most residents of Bhopal were unaware of the chemicals being stored in their midst; Union Carbide had not informed city authorities of the potential dangers of MIC, and they had not even bothered to formulate an emergency plan in the event of a disaster.
As the toxic cloud bloomed, its 900,000 residents were thrown into complete panic. According to Champa Devi Shukla, a resident of Bhopal who survived the night of December 3,
it felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran.
Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives — even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran.
In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to a settlement that amounted to $470 million – less than a sixth of what the original suit requested. The settlement provided roughly $300-500 to each victim, an amount equal to a year’s medical expenses for many of the leak’s victims. In 2002 Kathy Hunt, Public Affairs specialist for Dow Chemical insisted that $500 was “plenty good for an Indian” and that Dow would not assume responsibility for the people killed and sickened by the 1984 disaster. Dow had purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for more than $10 billion.
The contamination of Bhopal has left a pernicious legacy. Soil tests in 1999 revealed that mercury levels around the plant ranged from 20,000 to six million times the expected amounts; benzene hexachloride is abundant as well. Lead and organochlorines have been detected in the breast milk of mothers in Bhopal. Thousands of miscarriages and “monstrous births” have occurred as well, and more than 50,000 Bhopalis are permanently disabled, unable to work or – in many cases – even leave their homes.
Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide in 1984, was indicted for manslaughter fifteen years ago. Arrested in India, he posted bail and absconded from the country. He now lives the life of a retired executive, with an exquisite home in the Hamptons.