Court told design flaws led to Bhopal leak

Mazhar Ullah in Bhopal, The Guardian (UK) online Wednesday January 12, 2000


Faulty design and poor maintenance caused a poisonous gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in 1984 that killed thousands of Indians in the world's worst industrial accident, a scientist testified yesterday.

The company also failed to notify the government and health officials that such large amounts of the toxic methyl isocyanate gas - used to make pesticides - was being stored underground at the site in Bhopal, said KS Vardharajan.

Mr Vardharajan was appearing as a witness in the trial of seven Indian employees of Union Carbide who face charges of negligence and of causing grievous injury in connection with the toxic leak.

At least 3,000 people were killed at the time. The government in Madhya Pradesh state, where Bhopal is located, says that nearly 11,000 more died in later years, due to ailments resulting from inhaling the gas.

Union Carbide's chairman at the time of the accident, Warren Anderson, has refused to appear in an Indian court on manslaughter charges and the authorities have been unable to extradite him from the United States.

Five years after the disaster, Union Carbide paid the government $470m (294m) as part of an out-of-court settle ment. The company accepted moral responsibility for the disaster, but claimed at the time that the plant was sabotaged by a disgruntled employee.

Officials at the company's headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

So far, 600,000 people have filed compensation claims with the Indian government. They say Union Carbide has done little to help the families of the victims.

Survivors still complain of ailments ranging from breathlessness, chronic fatigue and stomach pain to cardiac problems and tuberculosis.

Mr Vardharajan said that several factors made the accident inevitable. For example, the plant used carbon steel valves which corroded when they came in contact with acid, allowing the toxic gas to escape.

The cooling system that kept the gases at a low temperature also had not been working for a month when the leak occurred, he alleged.

He also claimed that information about the chemical properties of methyl isocyanate was not quickly made available by the company. As a result, he said, Indian health officials did not immediately know how to treat the victims of the poisoning.