Carbide cripples Bhopal

1
A History of Massacre
* Union Carbide (UCC) started out as a carbon company in 1886 and diversified to gases and chemicals during World War I. ** From the Manhattan project of World War II, until it relinquished its contract in 1984, Union Carbide was a contractor to the US federal government’s nuclear weapons production.

* Before Bhopal, Union Carbide Corporation caused the largest industrial disaster in the US. In the construction of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in 1934 nearly 2000 company workers, most of them black, died of silicosis – an occupational disease caused by hazardous working conditions.

** At the Cimanggis plant in Indonesia at one point in 1978, 402 employees (more than half the work force of 750), were suffering from kidney diseaes attributable to workplace contamination according to the company’s doctor Dr.Maizar Syafei. She was asked by the company not to tell the workers that there was mercury in their drinking water or else the workers "would become anxious."

 

2 Union Carbide Corporation owned 50.9% shares in its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL). According to estimates made by The Economic Times Research Bureau, by 1984 the dividend remittances by UCIL to its parent company was more than the aggregate investment made by the corporation in Bhopal since its inception in 1969. In addition to the dividends, profits from the Indian subsidiary were funelled to the parent company as ‘technical service fee’ for use of Union Carbide’s technology, patents, trademarks as well as continuous know how and safety audits.

 

3 Obsessed With the Bottomline As part of UCC’s economy drive, the management at the Bhopal plant had switched off the refrigeration unit to save about Rs.700 (US $50) per day. Had the refrigeration unit been working, a runaway reaction in the MIC tank could have been delayed or even prevented. Experts prescribed fortnightly inspection of valves, pipes, pumps, etc. and replacements every six months in plants dealing with corrosive chemicals such as methyl isocyanate. At Carbide’s Bhopal plant, inspections were rare and replacements often not made for up to 2 years. Also included in the cost cutting measures was the reduction in the workforce in the Bhopal factory – brought down by half from 1980-84. The work crew for the MIC plant was cut by half from 12 to 6 workers, the maintenance crew in the same plant reduced from 6 to 2 workers. In the control room, there was only 1 operator who was expected to monitor 70-odd panels, indicators and controllers on the console. The period of safety training to workers in MIC plant was brought down from 6 months to 15 days.

 

4 Double Standards At the West Virginia plant all the vital systems had back-ups and were automatically linked to computerised alarms and crises control systems. The Bhopal plant not only lacked all the above but the sole manual alarm was also switched off so as not to ‘unduly’ alarm people.

 

5 All over Europe the maximum permissible storage limit for MIC is half a ton. At the Bhopal plant, the US company’s management overrode the wishes of the managers of its Indian subsidiary and kept the storage capacity hazardously high at over 90 tons. On the night of the disaster, 67 tons of MIC were stored in two tanks.

 

6 The first time the management of the Carbide plant came to know about the leak was at 11:00 pm. The factory alarm meant for workers was started by a desperate worker at 12:50 pm. The management not only turned it off within minutes but also delayed the sounding of the public siren until as late as 2:00 pm by which time all the gas that could leak had leaked.

 

7 Price of a life The first suit filed by Melvin Belli claimed damages upto $15 billion. Later the Indian Government arrogating itself the sole power to represent all the victims, filed a suit for upwards of $3 billion. 4 years after filing the suit and without informing the victims, the government settled for a sum of $470 million, nearly one-seventh of the original claim.

 

8 One Man’s Poison Another Man’s Profit After Bhopal, in the financial manoeuvres that took place during the takeover battle of Union Carbide, the company gave its shareholders a $33 bonus dividend plus $30 a share from the sale of its battery business, and gave its top executives a total of $28 million in "golden parachutes" to foil future takeover attempts. After news of the $470 million settlement, Carbide’s stock actually increased $2 a share. The then chairman, Robert Kennedy who owned 35,000 shares in the company, personally benefitted $70,000.

 

9 Marked down lives Union Carbide and eight other companies paid US $ 4.2 billion as potential damages for Silicone Breast Implants to 650,000 claimants. This amount was 9 times more than what the Bhopal victims were given. With global assests of US $ 5 billion, the company would have gone bankrupt if it had to pay damages according to US laws. A quick look at the Indian Railways schedule for compensation (Death Rs.2,00,000 and a minimum of 40,000 for bodily injury), sharply contradicts Union Carbide’s claims that the compensation was "more than generous by Indian standards."

 

10 Long History of Violation Union Carbide is the first company in the US to violate laws relating to providing information on chemicals used in a facility. The company claimed Trade Secrecy Protection in refusing to identify one of the key chemicals used in its plant at Henderson, Kentucky. Using the same cover, UCC continues to withhold vital information about the exact nature and composition of the leaked gases and its effects on the human system. After 15 years, this is still one of the prime reasons for the absence of a proper line of medical care for the victims.

 

11 In the year of the disaster UCC ranked 24th in terms of assets in Fortune 500 being the 3rd largest chemical company in the US and the 7th largest in the world.

 

12 In May 1982 the Safety Audit team which reported directly to the UCC headquarters in Danbury, stated in the inspection report of the Bhopal plant that there were "a total of 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 of them in the dangerous phosgene/methyl isocyanate units." This report was marked Business Confidential and only senior officials were privy to its contents. The company was also forewarned of the possibility of a runaway reaction involving a MIC storage tank 3 months prior to the Bhopal leak by its Safety and Health Inspectors based in Institute WestVirginia. Had the warnings in this report be heeded and the suggested action plan implemented, the Bhopal disaster could’ve been averted. Union Carbide did not send the report to the Bhopal plant.

 

13 Within the first week of the disaster 4 ‘medical experts’ came to Bhopal on a visit sponsored by UCC. In their interviews to the media, they stated that the leaked gases would not have any long term health effects on the exposed population. This was in sharp contrast to the subsequent research findings. One of these experts was Brian Ballyentine, who was also a toxicologist for the Pentagon. Another expert, Dr Hans Weil, Prof. and Chairman of Pulmonary Medicine at the Tulane University Medical School, New Orleans, has a history of fudging medical data to minimize liabilities of Corporations (a prime example being that of Johns Manville Inc. in the Asbestosis case), and had been reprimanded in the past by a US court for his unethical conduct. He examined victims in Bhopal and said "they have an encouraging prognosis and most would recover fully."

 

14 After the disaster Dr. Max Daunderer, a toxicologist from Munich, demonstrated the efficacy of intravenous sodium thiosulphate injections in detoxifying the exposed persons and providing substantial relief in symptoms. This was further confirmed by studies carried out by the Indian Council for Medical Research. Through helpful government officials, UCC succeeded in undermining official attempts for large scale administration of sodium thiosulphate. The company was quick to realise that the administration of this drug would establish that its toxins had indeed reached the blood stream and caused much more damage than the company would like people to believe.

 

15 8000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. After 16 years, the death toll has risen to over 16,000 and in the 17th year now, 10-15 people are dying every month from exposure related diseases and their complications. Over 120,000 children, men and women continue to suffer acutely from a host of exposure related illnesses and their complications. Damage to the respiratory system has led to the prevalence of pulmonary tuberculosis which has been found to be more than three times the national average. In the years following the disaster ,the stillbirth rate was three times, perinatal mortality was two times and neonatal mortality was one and a half times more than the comparative national figures. According to a study by Dr. Daya Varma, Mcgill University, Canada, 40% of the women pregnant at the time of the disaster aborted. Another study reported nearly five times increase in the rate of spontaneous abortion as a result of the Union Carbide disaster.

 

16 Union Carbide’s Toxic Legacy Nearly one-fifth of the exposed population of 5,00,000 today suffers from a whole host of maladies like lung fibrosis, impaired vision, bronchial asthma, TB, breathlessness, loss of appetite, severe body pains, painful and irregular menstrual cycles, recurrent fever, persistent cough, neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression. Cancer and sterility are on the rise according to doctors involved in the treatment of the survivors.

 

17 The worst part of the disaster is probably yet to come. Researchers have found chromosomal aberrations in the exposed population indicating a strong likelihood of congenital malformations in the generations to come.

 

18 UCC described the settlement "fair and reasonable." In fact, it had escaped extremely lightly. The settlement was but a 7th of the $3.3 billion that the Indian government had been demanding and less than a 10th of the $5 billion court award against Exon Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. $200 million of the settlement was covered by UCC’s insurance and another $200 million had already been put aside. Out of an annual revenue of $8 billion a year, the corporation had to find just $70 million to close the books on the worst industrial disaster in history.

 

19 On December 7th 1984, Warren Anderson, Chairman, UCC, and other Indian officials were arrested on charges of culpable homicide, criminal conspiracy and other serious offences. The arrested officials were lodged in the posh guest house of Union Carbide and Warren Anderson with an annual salary of Rs.10 million, was released on the same day on a bail of Rs.20,000. Summons from the Bhopal court drew no response from him and in January 1992 proclamations were published in Washington Post directing Anderson to face trial in the Bhopal court. In March 1992 the Chief Judicial Magistrate issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Warren Anderson. He continues to abscond criminal justice and is known to be in a beach house at Florida.

 

20 On the night of the disaster when people poured into hospitals by thousands, their eyes and lungs in burning choking agony, and urine and faeces running down their legs, the doctors called up the Plant Medical Officer to find out what they ought to do. They were told that the gas is like tear gas. "Just wash with water." J.Mukund, the Works Manager and Jackson B Browning, Director of Health, Safety and Environmental Affairs, Union Carbide Corporation, continued to refer to the poisonous chemicals that had till that date, killed over 8000 people, as "nothing more than a potent tear gas."

 

21 Operation Faith There were about 15 tons of MIC left behind in the tank after the leak. Survivors and independent professionals suggested that this remaining material be neturalised. Starting on December 16th 1984, Union Carbide, with the help of the State Government, began utilising this MIC for production . As a result of this decision, over 400,000 people left the city in a panic and many stayed away for over a month.