WAKE UP PEOPLE OF BHOPAL, YOU ARE ON THE EDGE OF A VOLCANO
In September 1982, the Bhopali journalist Rajkumar Keswani wrote a terrifying story for the city’s Hindi Jansatta daily. Bhopal, Keswani wrote, was about to be annihilated.
‘It will take an hour, at most an hour-and-a-half, for every one to die.’ The death of the city, would come in the form of a gas leak from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory.
Keswani’s information came from worried staff at the factory, where a worker, Ashraf Khan, had just been killed in a phosgene spill.
The World War I gas was being used to produce methyl-isocyanate (MIC), a chemical 500 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide, so volatile that unless kept in spotless conditions and refrigerated to 0˚C, it can even react explosively with itself.
Cooling it slows reactions, buys time in an emergency, but MIC is so dangerous that chemical engineers recommend not storing it at all unless absolutely necessary and then only in the tiniest quantities. In Europe the storage limit is half a ton. In Bhopal, on the night of the disaster, 67 tons of MIC were stored in tanks the size of steam locomotives.
Storing up danger
In an affidavit given to a court in Manhattan, Eduard Muñoz, Union Carbide’s first managing director of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), said he had opposed the US parent’s plan to install three giant MIC tanks in Bhopal. Muñoz’s position was that ‘only token storage was necessary, in small containers, based on economic and safety considerations.’
He was overruled. According to experts like the Centre for Scientific & Industrial Research the excessive volume of MIC stored in Bhopal, at times over ninety tons, was the most critical factor in the disaster.
Union Carbide had not originally manufactured MIC in Bhopal, but used to import it from the US.
On January 1st, 1973 the Indian government of India enacted FERA, the Foreign Exchange & Regulation Act, capping foreign equity in Indian companies at 40%. An alarmed UCC (Union Carbide Corporation) which owned 60% of UCIL’s shares, then proposed to the Indian government that it should start manufacturing MIC in Bhopal. The ultra-hazardous process, a Union Carbide speciality, involved high-technology inputs not available in India. In return, Carbide asked to be exempted from FERA. The exemption was granted, enabling UCC to retain majority control.
Union Carbide promised state-of-the-art science but a confidential project proposal obtained via the discovery process in a US court case proves that it had short-changed the Indian government by cutting costs and using ‘unproven’ methods in the ultra-hazardous alpha-napthol and MIC units, as well as in toxic waste treatment. The crucial pages are 10, 11 and 12.
The document shows that UCC’s own engineers warned of problems and risks, but the board decided to go ahead regardless.
UCC’s strategy was to cut costs by $8 million while retaining a 50.99% majority shareholding that gave it operational control of the factory in distant India.
The subsidiary’s Indian managers duly acceded to the US plan, stating that given the aim of spending as little as possible on the new facility, they found ‘the business risk’ acceptable.
No one appears to have considered the human risk.
Paying the price
As endless safety scares plagued the plant, and a sequence of failed monsoons hit harvests and depressed demand for pesticides, the factory began haemorrhaging money. UCC bosses decided to dismantle the plant and ship it to Indonesia or Brazil, but now, as a confidential memo makes very clear, the unproven technology of the alpha-napthol unit made it ‘impossible to sell.’
Carbide was paying the price for its penny-pinching. Having failed to find a buyer, bosses began cutting back on maintenance expenditure at the plant. Now others too would pay the price. But they would pay with their lives.
Death of Ashraf Khan
Ashraf Khan worked in the ‘unproven’ unit of the factory and was desperately worried about the state of affairs there. His wife, Sajida Bano remembers that he often came home complaining about the dangers that he and other workers faced.
On 24 December 1981 Ashraf was asked to replace a defective flange connecting two pipes in the phosgene manufacturing section. His manager assured him there was no danger but no sooner had he removed the flange than phosgene gushed out onto him. He was taken to the plant dispensary and subsequently moved to Hamidia hospital where he died.
Safety audit finds dangers
After Ashraf’s death Union Carbide management sent a team of US engineers to conduct a ‘business confidential’ safety audit.
The May 1982 report identified 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC unit.
Safety measures were improved at Carbide’s MIC plant in West Virginia, but not in Bhopal, where, incredibly, Carbide responded to the death of Ashraf Khan by intensifying its cost-cutting in the most dangerous areas of the plant.
Reckless and lunatic cost-cutting
Between 1980-84 the workforce was halved. The crew of the MIC unit was slashed from twelve to six, and its maintenance staff from six to two.
In the MIC control room a single operator had to monitor seventy-odd panels, indicators and controllers, all old and faulty. which often failed.
Safety training was reduced from six months to two weeks, reduced in effect to slogans, but the slogans were in English so the workers couldn’t understand them.
By the time Keswani began writing his articles, the huge, dangerous plant was being operated by men with little training and less English who were expected to use English manuals.
Morale was low but safety fears were ignored by management. Minor accidents were just covered up. There were so many small leaks that the alarm siren was turned off to avoid inconveniencing the neighbours.
In plants dealing with corrosive chemicals such as methyl isocyanate, experts want fortnightly inspections of valves, pipes, and pumps, with new replacements every six months, but in Bhopal inspections were rare and replacements often not made for up to two years. In case of repairs, the use of new parts was curtailed. Old ones must be recycled.
The instructions came from Union Carbide’s regional holding company in Hong Kong, on whose board sat top US executives who reported back to the parent board in Connecticut. Their private report boasts of having saved $1.25 million, but says that ‘future savings would not be so easy.’
Warning not passed on
In February 1984, a safety audit of the West Virginia ‘sister’ factory raised major concerns that a runaway reaction could occur in one of the MIC Unit storage tanks, in which case there would be no way to prevent catastrophic failure of the tank.
Despite the obvious importance of this report and its relevance to the MIC tanks in Bhopal, the warning was not passed on to the Indian plant, where managers were still looking for things to cut. There was nothing left.
Or was there?
Carbide bosses remembered the three giant tanks of MIC.
Refrigeration turned off
The three huge tanks were meant to be kept refrigerated, as per Carbide’s safety manual , at 0˚C.
This is crucial because MIC is so volatile that unless impeccably kept it can even react with itself. Chilling it slows down lethal runaway reactions of the very sort predicted by the West Virginia safety auditors, buying buys time to solve the problem, and most importantly, giving a chance for warnings to be issued and any nearby populations evacuated to safety.
Given the threat of a catastrophic tank failure and knowing the lethal nature of MIC, Union Carbide did the right thing in West Virginia and further improved its safety systems.
In Bhopal, where ambient daytime temperatures can top 40˚C Carbide turned off the refrigeration of the MIC tanks to save freon gas worth $37.68 a day.
As evidence mounted that its factory had been negligently and shoddily managed, Carbide began claiming that UCC, the American parent, had no authority or control over the plant’s design or operations, and could bear no responsibility for the disaster.
In fact every important element, from the ‘unproven’ Alpha Napthol unit down to the MIC plant, had been designed by UCC, or else approved by design engineers in the US.
The true story is told by Carbide’s own confidential papers obtained by ‘discovery’: unproven technology, useless safety systems, storing huge amounts of MIC in conditions made doubly dangerous by negligence and cost-cutting, ignoring warnings; and endangering a whole city to save $40 a day – all of these caused the deaths of 20,000 people and condemned 100,000 more to lifetimes of pain.
Union Carbide Corporation’s culture of greed and double standards, in short racism, bred what one prosecuting attorney in a New York court would describe as a ‘reckless, depraved indifference to human life’.