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Class Act

By Debora Mackenzie

THIS MONTH, the remaining survivors of the Bhopal tragedy in India will begin a class action lawsuit in the US against the plant's former owners, Union Carbide.

And about time, too. For 15 years, the company has avoided court action at home for the world's worst industrial accident. The reason's obvious: if a US court rules that faulty plant design led to the 16 000 deaths that are so far estimated to have resulted from the chemical explosion, Union Carbide will have to pay a lot more than the begging-bowl sums it doled out in India. The company helped keep the case out of the US by saying how the tragedy was caused by industrial sabotage. But this is beside the point.

On the morning of 3 December 1984, when they started dying in Bhopal, I was in my office in Geneva. I called the company and then every chemical engineer I knew. By the afternoon I knew that a rise in pressure had blown 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) out of its tank, and apparently overwhelmed the containment system.

As images of the dead, dying and blinded poured out of India, New Scientist reported that the explosion was probably a runaway reaction caused by water that accidentally got into the MIC, which the system could not contain.

Union Carbide claims this was the work of a saboteur. But it has never explained how a saboteur could have slipped thousands of litres of water into the tank without being detected. In any event, it should have known better than to store 30 tonnes of MIC without sufficient precautions to keep sabotage--or anything else--from killing the neighbours.

Union Carbide knows better. In March 1985, the company's own analysis described how pipes near the tank had just been washed with water. The following month, Indian scientists reported how a new pipe, installed with the company's approval, let that water into the MIC through a faulty valve. A former Union Carbide engineer used the company's own data to calculate for New Scientist that the safety system could never have coped with a

runaway reaction. Three months before the accident, Union Carbide admitted in a report from its own engineers that "a real potential for a serious incident exists" in the MIC tank at its West Virginia plant. I am looking at this yellowed document now. It says action should be taken "within about 60 days".

So why wasn't Carbide taken to task? The inadequacy of the plant's safety systems was easy to uncover, even for the novice reporter I was then. I had the smoking gun. But virtually none of my media colleagues was prepared to explode the myth that Bhopal could somehow be excused by allegations of sabotage.

In 1986, while sitting in a New York courtroom as a judge considered whether Union Carbide should be tried in the US, I decided it was time for a little spin-doctoring. I found a reporter from The New York Times and told him my story. But he wasn't interested. "I'm a business reporter. I don't understand that technical stuff." Needless to say, the judge ruled that the tragedy was one for the Indian courts.

The US courts now have an opportunity to do justice to those who survived Bhopal. My plea to reporters is that they get to grips with the "technical stuff". Unless companies like Union Carbide are held to account, what's to stop it happening again?

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