Union Carbide’s Factory in Bhopal: Still a potential killer
Bhopal Group for Information & Action, July 1999

 

Two incidents of massive fire in the Union Carbide factory premises in Bhopal in the last two months have made the communities in the neighbourhood as apprehensive of the risks on their lives and health as they were in the years prior to the December 1984 disaster. Indeed these recent fires have highlighted yet another disaster waiting to occur.

To begin with, both were major fires and each of them in a corner of the factory premises very close to the neighbouring communities. The majority of the people in these communities are those most severely affected by toxic gases from the factory in the December 1984 disaster. In the last 15 years many among them have not known a single day of respite from a wide range of exposure induced physical and mental diseases. Apprehensive of a recurrence, the people in the community are in a state of continued panic.

The fire at 2.30pm on March 13th on the south-eastern corner of the factory premises was so big that it took over 40 men, four hours and 19 fire brigade tankers to control it. Immediately outside the wall that bordered the fire is Shakti Nagar, a community of 110 survivor families - the majority of whom are economically deprived.

The second fire, again in the afternoon, on April 26th on the north-western corner was almost as big. Arif Nagar, a few yards away from the fire is a community of low-income survivors from different parts of the city who have settled here in the last several years to avoid paying rent.

There is a more sinister threat to these communities than their closely built houses being razed to the ground. The site of the March 13th fire was used for many years by Carbide management to dump toxic waste. Workers of the factory report the dumping of over 500 tons of ortho-dichlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, alpha naphthol, mercury, carbaryl and other toxic substances at different sites within the factory premises. In 1994, following protests by activist organisations, Union Carbide retained the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a government agency, to assess soil contamination within the factory premises.

The NEERI report which remains confidential to date mentions "high concentration of temic, sevin and lindane" in the "entire Disposal area - I", in the north-eastern corner and in "55% of Disposal area - II", in the eastern side. Toxic chemicals have been dumped both in pits and on the surface at these two disposal sites and the possibility of formation of potent toxic gases due to thermal degradation is very real and frightening. While the fire in March was over Disposal area - II, the April 26th fire was close to Disposal area - I. Also, the fire here was just a few feet away from a shed containing about 21 tons of sevin tar - which is inflammable and produces extremely toxic gases when heated. An expert committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests earlier confirmed the hazardous nature of the stored chemicals and called for special precautions against fire on the factor site.

The toxic chemicals stored and recklessly dumped by Union Carbide have also been a source of contamination of groundwater in the vicinity of the factory. Water samples from community wells were found to contain di-chlorobenzenes and tri-chlorobenzenes by the Citizens Environmental Laboratory, Boston, USA in 1990. The problem has grown since then and the civic authorities have had to declare water from more than 100 wells unfit for human consumption. However, in the absence of any alternative supply and in the face of official apathy and corporate indifference, over 10,000 people in communities such as Atal Ayub Nagar, Annu Nagar, Nawab Colony, Arif Nagar, Jaiprakash Nagar are forced to drink water laced with carcinogenic chemicals.

Survivors' organisations in Bhopal have called for provision of alternate supplies of drinking water in the affected communities, assessment of soil and groundwater contamination in and around the factory, legal action holding Union Carbide accountable for environmental damages and measures to ensure the safety of people in the neighbourhood of the factory. Three government agencies have acknowledged the toxic contamination of groundwater in their internal memos and the state’s regulatory agency, the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, has held the Union Carbide accountable for the toxic chemicals still stored in the factory premises.