Carbide’s Safety Meltdown NONE of the safety systems designed to prevent a leak – six in all – were operational on THAT NIGHT:
1. Flare Tower: Disconnected
2. Vent Gas Scrubber: Out of caustic soda and inadequate for unsafe volume of gas
3. Water Curtain: Not functional; designed with inadequate height
4. Pressure Valve: Leaking
5. Run Off Tank: Already contained MIC
6. Mandatory Refrigeration for MIC Unit: Shut down for 3 months to save money
Bhopal is not only a disaster, but a corporate crime. It began as a classic instance of corporate double-standards: Union Carbide was obliged to install state-of-the-art technology in Bhopal, but instead used inferior and unproven technology and employed lax operating procedures and maintenance and safety standards compared to those used in its US ‘sister-plant’. The motive was not simply profit, but also control: the company saved $8 million, and through this deliberate under-investment managed to retain a majority share of its Indian subsidiary.
It should have come as no surprise to Carbide’s management when its factory began to pose a chronic threat to its own workers and to the people living nearby. On December 25, 1981, a leak of phosgene killed one worker, Ashraf Khan, at the plant and severely injured two others. On January 9, 1982, twenty five workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. During the “safety week” proposed by management to address worker grievances about the Bhopal facility, repeated incidents of such toxic leakage took place and workers took the opportunity to complain directly to the American management officials present.
In the wake of these incidents, workers at the plant demanded hazardous duty pay scales commensurate with the fact that they were required to handle hazardous substances. These requests were denied. Yet another leak on October 5, 1982 affected hundreds of nearby residents requiring hospitalization of large numbers of people residing in the communities surrounding the plant.
After the leak – which included quantities of MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform – the worker’s union printed hundreds of posters which they distributed throughout the community, warning:
* “Beware of Fatal Accidents”
* “Lives of thousands of workers and citizens in danger because of poisonous gas”
* “Spurt of accidents in the factory, safety measures deficient.”
Opposition legislators raised the issue in the State Assembly and the clamor surrounding these incidents culminated in a 1983 motion that urged the state government to force the company to relocate the plant to a less-populated area.
Starting in 1982, a local journalist named Rajkumar Keswani had frantically tried to warn people of the dangers posed by the facility. In September of 1982, he wrote an article entitled “Please Save this City.” Other articles, written later, bore grimly prophetic titles such as “Bhopal Sitting on Top of a Volcano” and “If You Do Not Understand This You Will Be Wiped Out.” Just five months before the tragedy, he wrote his final article: “Bhopal on the Brink of a Disaster.”In the midst of this clamour, in May 1982, Union Carbide sent a team of U.S. experts to inspect the Bhopal plant as part of its periodic safety audits. This report, which was forwarded to Union Carbide’s management in the United States, speaks unequivocally of a “potential for the release of toxic materials” and a consequent “runaway reaction” due to “equipment failure, operating problems, or maintenance problems.” In fact, the report goes on to state rather specifically: “Deficiencies in safety valve and instrument maintenance programs…. Filter cleaning operations are performed without slipblinding process. Leaking valves could create serious exposure during this process.”
In its report, the safety audit team noted a total of 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units. It had warned of a “higher potential for a serious incident or more serious consequences if an accident should occur.” Though the report was available to senior U.S. officials of the company, nothing was done. In fact, according to Carbide’s internal documents, a major cost-cutting effort (including a reduction of 335 men) was undertaken in 1983, saving the company $1.25 million that year.
Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant’s safety systems were allowed to fall into disrepair. Between 1983 and 1984, the safety manuals were re-written to permit switching off the refrigeration unit and shutting down the vent gas scrubber when the plant was not in operation. Cost-cutting measures directed by the Danbury Headquarters of Union Carbide included reducing the MIC plant crew from 12 to 6. In the control room, there was only 1 operator to monitor 70+ panels. Safety training was cut from 6 months to 15 days.
On the night of the deadly MIC leak, none of the safety systems designed to prevent a leak – six in all – were operational, and the plant siren had been turned off. The process safety system included a design modification installed in May 1984 on the say-so of US engineers. This ‘jumper line’, a cheap solution to a maintenance problem, connected a relief valve header to a pressure vent header and enabled water from a routine washing operation to pass between the two, on through a pressure valve, and into MIC storage tank 610. Carbide’s initial investigation agreed that the pressure valve was leaking but declined to mention the jumper line. Exposure to this water led to an uncontrolled reaction; a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methyl amine soon settled over much of Bhopal, and people began to die.