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The Hindu, Saturday, January 15, 2000

Tragedy burnt into memory

By C. V. Gopalakrishnan

FIFTEEN YEARS ago, well over 16,000 died - as many as 3,000 of them
instantaneously - and about 5.5 lakhs were injured. They were victims of
the leak of poisonous gases from the Bhopal pesticide factory of the U.S.
multinational, Union Carbide Corporation, on December 3, 1984. The
tragedy has been burnt into the nation's memory.

The horrendousness of the tragedy almost equals the one brought about by
the dropping of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S.
Air Force in August 1945 for an abrupt ending of the Second World War.

The callousness of the UCC in limiting the compensation to a measly Rs.
15,000 or even less to the families of the victims is juxtaposed against its
survival, after having rained death over Bhopa,l and its continuing to
flourish. Its stock which amounted to 43 cents immediately after the
tragedy went up by $2 on the day it agreed to a settlement with the
Government of India.

Media reports have drawn attention to the heartlessness of U.S.
multinationals in persisting with the production of hazardous chemicals. The
ozone depletion caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) did not persuade
DuPont to stop producing the chemicals, nor did it induce Dow Chemicals
to give up the manufacture of vinyl chloride, which is known to cause
cancer; though this company had later tried to give itself a better image.

The fight against the much-too-hardened chemical industry - particularly of
the U.S. and the other developed countries - which continues to turn out
hazardous chemicals has to go on to save the world, particularly the
developing countries, from more Bhopals.

There were, however, a few indications of an awakening, to what an
unrestrained chemical industry could do to the health of the people, after
the Bhopal tragedy when the U.K. Government reduced its approvals for
applications for licences from 50 per cent in the Eighties to less than 20 per
cent in the mid-Nineties.

The chemical industry showing greater environmental awareness, however,
was prompted more by self-interest than by any concern for the ecology.
Dow Chemicals had recalled that failure to improve its image would lead to
refusal of approvals for fresh investments and the industry feared that it
``could be legislated to the point of economic non-viability''. Among the
steps taken by Dow Chemicals was the induction of a WRAP (Waste
Reduction Always Pays) programme.

The ``Responsible Care'' programme was initiated by the industry in the
U.K. for measuring emissions, improving environmental performance and
communicating the same. The programme seems to have caught on around
the world during the Nineties, though the initial response from the chemical
companies was far from encouraging and was cynical.

The poor image which the world chemical industry has earned for itself is
attributed to its having remained secretive about what it was doing. There
were indications that the scene was changing when B.P. Chemicals gave
full details of the entire emissions by its group while the ICI decided to
make known its significant emissions.

International variations in the content of the chemicals used by the same
company seem to have made it difficult to publicise the levels of emissions
which would vary between countries. An illustration of this is that data
about sulphur dioxide emissions by Sandoz would not be the same in
Pakistan and Europe since the company in Pakistan uses local oil which
has a high sulphur content and import of low sulphur oil is not permitted.

International variations in data published would not be in the company's
interest. Chemical companies readily give only figures relating to energy
consumption, environmental spending and safety records.

However, the figures relating to environmental spending by the companies
can be very misleading, giving them a very good image if the expenditure is
given only in absolute terms without mentioning the percentage of the total
turnover.

A mid-Nineties tabulation showed that Hoechst spent 2.226 billion
deutschemarks (DMs) on environmental control, Bayer 0.319 billion DMs,
the ICI œ365 millions and Union Carbide $4.872 billions. These
respectively amounted to not more than 4.49 per cent, 7.19 per cent, 3 per
cent and 5 per cent of total turnover which should have been just a flea-bite
for them.

Environmental commitments which should be accepted for protecting
populations from more Bhopals can be met only by technology
improvements for achieving drastic waste reduction and for handling and
disposing of residual and toxic wastes.

It will call for a good deal of persuasion for managements to undertake
waste disposal programmes because of the investments needed. A
hazardous waste incinerator set up at a cost of 150 million French francs
by Rhone Poulene at its site could be used at only half of its capacity of
30,000 tonnes.

The reluctance of chemical and pharmaceutical industries to disclose facts
about the hazardous inputs they use only hardens the sentiment against
them. There was no disclosure about the dyestuffs made by a well-known
multinational drug firm containing the potentially carcinogenic
orthonitronisole until there was a media exposure of it after studies carried
out under the U.S. National Toxicology Programme.

Steps for keeping the environment clean will in fact be in the interests of
the chemical industry. For, there will be a steep decline in operational costs
and an increase in profitability. Energy consumption is reported to have
come down by 50 per cent for Ciba after its implementation of
environmental safety measures. This reveals that lack of attention to
environmental cleanliness had led to unnoticed and wasteful power
consumption.

Remedial action for correcting poor integration of process control systems
which foul up the environment also brings down operational costs. The
chemical industry will also have to look more closely at how the entire
group of firms engaged in producing the inputs for a major product are
conducting their downstream operations and disposing their waste
accumulations.

Environmental safety requirements very often call for drastic decisions
such as the closing down of certain lines of production which companies
would not be prepared or willing to take.

Nevertheless the response from the industry has not been wholly negative.
Sandoz, for instance, is said to have given up the production of all products
containing mercury at its Basle unit. Ciba stopped producing its Gallicrom
insecticide during the mid- Eighties since this was not environmentally
friendly.

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