A Case of Environmental Disregard and Disrespect
by Melissa Musick 17 November 1999
Union Carbide, a multinational corporation with 11,500 employees
incorporates divisions around the world. From Indonesia and Belgium to Ecuador and West
Virginia, Union Carbide wields its influence. As Barnet and Muller explain in the Winter
1992 issue of National Forum, a multinational corporation, like Union Carbide, is best
defined as the "most powerful human organization yet devised for colonizing the
future' (Donaldson 1). In the chronicles of history, Union Carbide will be remembered not
for the economic opportunities which it has provided to individuals around the globe, but
for its degradation of the environment and disregard for human lives. Hawk's Nest, Bhopal,
and Institute stand as vivid testimony to this fact.
During the early 1930s, 3,000 men, 75% African-American from the deep South, were involved
in a project to dig a tunnel through Hawk's nest in West Virginia. Drilling and mucking,
the most dangerous tasks, were relegated to blacks. Working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week,
for scrip, African-Americans were forced to become dependent on the company. Living in
rooms crammed with 2-3 bunks and no electricity, black slum housing paled in comparison to
that of the white workers (Cherniack 25). The effects of pure silica mining, however,
would obscure any distress over the inadequate living conditions.
In The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster, as Dr. Cherniack
describes, '[Silicosis] is caused by tiny particles of silica, which are absorbed by cells
deep within the lung...these cells become impaired and digest themselves, causing damage
and scarring known as fibrosis" (Cherniack 37). Over the months, many
African-Americans died of silicosis, but only with the death of white immigrants did the
deaths gain recognition (Nixon). Consequently, racism was a determining factor in the
actions taken by the corporation. Wet drilling, a process which would have held down the
dust quantity, was not seen as a viable alternative because it would have slowed down the
excavation. The white foremen were provided with masks, unlike the workers, 75% of whom
were black. Poor ventilation only worsened the problem by creating stagnant air and the
need for deeper breathing (intake of more silica dust). As is the usual case with
corporations, profit resides as the bottom line.
While claiming that there was not an officially approved respirator for silicosis at the
time, Union Carbide faced 538 lawsuits, of which 34 were settled for a total of $200,000.
As Dr. Cherniack places the decision in perspective, 'In effect, the convergent acts of
decisions of powerful corporate entities, state officials, and the courts had determined
that less than four hundred dollars was the average worth of a tunnel worker's health of
life" (Cherniack 73). Even with the loss of 2,000 men, positive results were achieved
with the passage of state legislation, covering workers afflicted with silicosis, in 46
states by the end of 1937 (Cherniack 110).
December 2nd and 3rd of 1984 will remain etched in the minds and hearts of millions around
the globe. For on these fateful days 15 years ago, Union Carbide India, Ltd., a subsidiary
in Bhopal, India, experienced the worst industrial disaster in history. To fully grasp
what occurred, it is important to look upon the history of the Bhopal plant. In 1969, the
small plant was erected in Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh (Morehouse
and Subramanian 2). The 1960s had brought a 'green revolution'
to the forefront of Indian social policy. Unable to feed its population, the Indian
government deemed the use of agricultural pesticides as an appropriate option. Deeming the
manufacture of raw products as an important economic investment, the production of methyl
isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic substance used in making the pesticide Sevin, began in
Over the years, a number of problems and hardships befell the Bhopal plant. Unprofitable,
the plant endured severe pressure to cut costs. Producing less than 3% of Union Carbide's
profits (Shrivastava 51), the plant was too often ignored by top officials. The declining
employee morale and dedication together with numerous internal conflicts created an
environment of carelessness. The lack of safety training, use of safety equipment,
emergency plans, and information on hazardous material produced a plant with little focus
on the health and welfare of its employees or community. Four years prior to the
"accident," 80% of the workers trained with MIC
departed (Morehouse and Subramaniam 49).
The area surrounding the Bhopal plant was a land mired in a quicksand of despair. In 1984,
20% of the population lived in "squatter homes" (Shrivastava 4). As Shrivastava
explains, within Jaya Prakash Nager and Kenchi Chola, 2 slum colonies, "Slum
residents were often exploited by money lenders, protection racketeers, and illegal
'landlords' who exercised control over the property by threat of violence"
While Union Carbide has never admitted to being directly responsible for the Bhopal plant
disaster, the evidence clearly shows a lack of attention and awareness of the needed
safety precautions. Somehow, water was introduced into the MIC mixture, creating a runaway
reaction. Through investigation, the temperature indicator alarm, pressure indicator
control, and level indicator on all MIC tanks were not working properly (Morehouse and
Subramaniam 15). The Centre on Science and the Environment's The State of India's
Environment 1984-85 The Second Citizen's Report reads, "Carbide never installed in
the Bhopal plant the computerized pressure/ temperature-sensing system which had been used
for several years at the Institute plant' (Morehouse and Subramaniam 18). In 1982, plant
management had even went so far to negligently separate the siren from the alarm system so
that the surrounding community would not be "unnecessarily worried." Keeping
cost cutting as the #1 priority, emergency response plans were not in place, safety
problems were not attended to, not to mention the disregard of the toxic nature and
harmful affects of MIC (Morehouse and Subramaniam 19).
Producing less than 3% of Union Carbide's profits and 2% of its sales, the Bhopal plant
operated with few resources or support (Shrivastava 51). With the number of operators for
the MIC unit cut in half from 1980 to 1984, declining employee morale and internal
conflicts fused to create a high degree of carelessness (Shrivastava 49). In 1984, Chief
Minister Singh of India admitted that in the prior 6 years, 6 accidents had occurred at
the plant (Iyer 26).
The horrific implications of the MIC reaction, and subsequent 80,000 pounds of toxic
discharge, can hardly be described with words. Of the 4,000 to 7,000 deaths and 200,000
injured individuals, the highest concentration fell within the slum areas, due to their
close proximity to the plant. Within a report from Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M.
Hospital was written, "In the 82 subjects studied in Bombay [from 8 to 53 days after
the accident] the main symptoms were dry cough..., throat irritation..., dyspnoea
[choking] on exertion..., chest pain..., eye irritation..., blurred vision...,
vomiting..., diarrhea..., muscular weakness..., and altered consciousness"
(Morehouse and Subramaniam 32). Other victims experienced a wide range of illness
including: cornea burns, lacrimation, photophobia, paralysis, and anorexia (Morehouse and
Subramaniam 29-30). William Brown, an associate professor at Carnegie-Mellon University,
expressed the true devastation of Bhopal when he remarked that "Those who endure
total whitening of the eyes would...never recover their sight, and those whose lungs were
totally coated with gas would probably die of respiratory failure' (Iyer 31).
A doctor reflected that on that day at a nearby Railway Colony, "Several of them [the
victims] fainted, felt extremely weak and became unconscious. Others vomited, defecated,
and urinated involuntarily...People had died quietly in awkward positions, unable to
protest' (Morehouse and Subramaniam 25-26), As Dean Brelis recalls, "They [the
victims] were dead, humped in agonizing frozen postures, like birds shot from the
sky" (Brelis 25),
Since the 1975 decision to grant Union Carbide a license to manufacture pesticides, ties
developed between Union Carbide and local politicians in India (Whitaker 30). In
retrospect, it is evident that the government failed to enforce any type of environmental
standards upon Union Carbide for fear of losing the Bhopal plant. Consequently, the gas
leak in December 1994 wrecked environmental and social havoc. Thousands of animal
carcasses littered the ground, while the toxins permeated the ground and water
supply. Numerous plant species were affected.
As expected, Union Carbide's response to the incident was to shift blame from itself and
project it upon some other villain. Union Carbide's chief counsel commented that
"There were three tragedies at Bhopal - the gas leak, the reaction to it by the
Indian government, and the consequent mobility to get relief to the genuine victims"
(Browning 23), The containment objectives of Union Carbide were to "downplay the
seriousness of the situation, minimize the adverse impacts, especially on health, and
seek to implicate others" (Morehouse and Subramaniam 40). In a March 1985 internal
report and subsequent press conference at its headquarters, local errors and
mismanagement, along with sabotage by a disgruntled employee, were deemed the root of the
fateful tragedy (Shrivastava 101), Even in the Union Carbide produced video, Unraveling
the Tragedy at Bhopal, the theory of sabotage failed to be backed with proof.
The corporation did grudgingly accept moral responsibility, but legal liability proved to
be a different matter. Later, in court, one Carbide attorney made the preposterous claim
that Black June, a group of Sikh extremists, had 'reportedly assumed responsibility for
the accident" (Helm 97). The legal response amounted to a process of "delay,
denial, [and] disregard" (Sarangi 6). Dr. Ani Sadgopal of Zahreel Gas Kand Sangharsh
Morcha (Poisonous Gas Disaster Struggle Movement) believes that the Union Carbide supports
within the Indian government worked to create numerous ties to conceal the actual number
of deaths and the lack of relief efforts (Morehouse and Subramaniam 43). Eventually, Union
Carbide hired Burson Morstellar Inc. of N.Y., a public relations firm to deal publicly
with its financial responsibility to the victims of Bhopal (Shrivastava 101).
At the onset, the Indian government took control of factory records and prevented workers
from conversing with either the media or Union Carbide officials. J. Mukund, the plant
manager and 4 others were arrested for "culpable homicide through negligence."
Warren M. Anderson's, chairman of Union Carbide, visit to Bhopal resulted in his
subsequent arrest over charges of "negligence and criminal corporation
liability" along with "criminal conspiracy." However he was released 6
hours later on $2,500 bond (Iyer 24).
In the weeks to come, over 40 volunteer organizations, 2 which are permanent, were created
to deal with the massive devastation in Bhopal. At the same time, hostility towards Union
Carbide mounted. In December 1985, 4,000 demonstrators held a rally at Union Carbide
factory gates, burning effigies of Warren Anderson and government officials (Shrivastava
108). On January 3, 1985 another morcha (demonstration), involving 10,000 victims and
supporters, was held. Wearing badges with Dhikkar Divas (Denouncement Day), all those
responsible for the devastation and lack of adequate relief, were condemned (Shrivastava
Union Carbide's deflection of responsibility arises again in Union Carbide: Disaster at
Bhopal. In this pamphlet, Jackson B. Browning, retired VP at Union Carbide, writes,
"There is no evidence that this disaster caused cancer, birth defects, or any other
delayed effects" (Browning 21). Contrary evidence arises in a study by Daya R. Varma
at McGill University. In this study, 43% of 865 pregnant women miscarried (Mukerjee 16).
After Bhopal, the Chemical Manufacturers Association undertook 2 safety initiatives. The
CAER (Community Awareness and Emergency Response) program provides public access to
important information on hazardous chemicals. Secondly, the CMA's 14-year old
transportation emergency hotline was extended by the National Chemical Response and
Information Center (NCRIC) (Shrivastava 83). In 1994, the CMA estimated that 3-4% of
chemical corporations' sales ($12 billion) is spent on safety and environmental protection
(up from <1% prior to Bhopal) (Begley and Coeyman 4).
As of 1994, the Indian government had provided $75 million in relief to Bhopal, building
12 hospitals and 1,000 apartments (Moore 2). STEP-UP (Special Training and Employment
Program) has provided economic rehabilitation for the urban poor in the form of 79 loans
(up to $1,000) to begin small businesses in Bhopal (Shrivastava 94). Yet, the closure of
the plant has netted a loss of 650 permanent and 650 temporary jobs (Shrivastava 72). The
Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic has provided 6,000 individuals with free
medical care and set up the Sambhavna (possibility) Trust (Sarangi 10).
The Rhone-Polenc plant in Institute, West Virginia stands as a reminder of what terror can
be unleashed on a population if just one error is made. Once owned by Union Carbide, this
plant suffered a leak of 4,000 pounds (500 gallons) of a mixture of chemicals on August
11, 1984. Designed similar to Bhopal, the pressure gauges were broken, the alarms were
shut off, and the refrigerator devices were not functioning. Although the accident
resulted in no deaths, 135 were sent to area hospitals. The
Rhone-Polenc plant has spent $200 million in upgrading the safety and environmental
systems (Begley and Coeyman 3). Even with 28 major MIC leaks at the plant 5 years prior to
the Bhopal disaster, MIC is still in use today (Nixon).
The grim reality surfaces in a health study conducted for 5 years in the mid-1970s. In the
study, Kanawha County, West Virginia residents were discovered to be 21% more prone to
developing cancer than the average American (Chase 27). Can one see the connection?
In 1984, Union Carbide was the 7th largest chemical company in the world with $10 billion
in sales and assets and 100,000 employees (Shrivastava 35). In 1998, Union Carbide's sales
were $5.6 billion and it employed 11,500 worldwide. The environmental situation does seem
to have drastically improved. From 1996 to 1997, the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) showed
that the total hazardous waste had decreased by 23%. Ninety-two percent of the total
hazardous waste was "recycled, recovered as energy or treated" (Union
The US EPA even gave Union Carbide its Environmental Partnership Award for
cleanup efforts at the Superfund sight in Marietta, Ohio. As William Muno, U.S. EPA Region
5 Superfund director praised, "Union Carbide has clearly demonstrated a commendable
corporate environmental philosophy in meeting its Superfund obligation" (Union
Carbide... 5). Disappointing however is the fact that as of 1994, Union Carbide had only
fulfilled $3.1 of its $470 million obligation to the victims of Bhopal (Moore 1). A
travesty enlarged ten-fold.
Numerous advancements and improvements have taken place at Union Carbide and around the
globe as a result of Bhopal. In December 1985, the GAF Corporation attempted a takeover of
Union Carbide but a $100 million outlay in an environmental protection program saved the
company (Shrivastava 103). The Toxic Substance Control Act is just one of 20 bills
introduced in Congress as a result of Bhopal (Nelson-Horchler 3). As a result, Union
Carbide has been forced to spend $50,000 to $100,000 to clear new products through the
more stringent requirements. In 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act
(SARA) was passed (Wood 2). Part of the SARA plan was what has been commonly referred to
as "Bhopal Legislation." The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
informs communities of hazardous chemicals in the area and provides emergency plans
As David T. Buzzelli, VP at Dow Chemical, remarked, "The biggest changes to result
from Bhopal are the opening up of industry, the tremendous change in outreach, and the
recognition that our performance had to be improved" (Begley and Coeyman 4). Fifteen
years have passed since that horrifying day in December 1984, and images and recollections
have tended to fade. However, we must never forget the devastation that industrial
production can bring. Dr. Wegman, the head of the Occupational Health Science Department
at the University of California in Los Angeles, expressed the
view of the future when he said, "What is the probability of another Bhopal? It is
100 per cent. There is no question there will be another one. I do not know if the
magnitude will be the same - greater or less. But there will be another one. There will be
many more" (Morehouse and Subramaniam 101).
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