Immediately after the disaster, Union Carbide launched an aggressive effort to obscure the cause, paying for the only study ever to conclude that sabotage was responsible. Although this study has never been entered into evidence in a court of law – its scientific value is dubious – Dow and Carbide cite it shamelessly as they flee any responsibility for Bhopal.
Every investigation and analysis not paid for by Carbide concluded causes other than sabotage. The process safety system trumpeted by Carbide 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.
Carbide itself has cast doubt on the sabotage theory. In Congressional testimony on March 26, 1985, Union Carbide’s CEO Warren Anderson stated that there was “no evidence whatsoever that sabotage was behind the incident at Bhopal.” (3) Mr. Anderson was also quoted at a March, 1985 press briefing as saying that sabotage is “always a potential and you have to worry about it. That’s why you need the redundancy… Built into the safety system are a whole series of capabilities that can take care of whatever inadvertent action or commission has taken place so you’re not all dependent on just one item to either make it safe or make it unsafe.” (4) Finally, Jackson Browning, Union Carbide’s Vice President for Health, Safety and Environmental Affairs, was quoted as testifying before a Congressional committee that “the MIC tank line fittings are colored-coded and that the water line couplings are incompatible with the gas line couplings that go into the tank” – therefore making a deliberate introduction of water into the MIC tank, as Union Carbide has claimed, virtually impossible. (5)
Most damningly of all, although Carbide claims it is certain of the identity of the saboteur “responsible” for the death of 22,000 people, they’ve never publicly revealed his identity. In fact, they’ve been particularly careful to avoid doing so because it would invite a libel suit in which the theory and the facts of the disaster would be open to scrutiny.
The Sabotage Theory
“UCC abetted the crime. The sabotage theory was a bloody lie – UCC listened too much to their PR company.” -Kamal Pareek, Chief Safety Officer at the Bhopal plant until Dec. 1983
“Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson told the congressional panel [House Health & Environment Subcommittee, Chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman] yesterday that the company had ‘no evidence whatsoever that sabotage was behind’ the Bhopal incident.” -The Washington Post, March 27 1985
UCC CEO Warren Anderson, in introducing Union Carbide’s March 1985 report, claimed the company had “honored” its promise to “find out what went wrong at Bhopal.” He declared that the lessons “are too important to be based on speculation and conjecture.” Despite overwhelming evidence that Union Carbide’s negligence was responsible for the disaster, this is not what Union Carbide concluded. Instead, they soon advanced a theory based solely on speculation and conjecture – the charge of sabotage.
In reality, immediately after the disaster Union Carbide launched an aggressive effort to shift blame. By June 1985, Union Carbide claimed that its Bhopal plant had definitely been sabotaged and told incredulous journalists that a hitherto-unknown gang of Sikh extremists calling itself “Black June” had taken responsibility for the leak. This risible claim was given short shrift by government, police, news media, and a judge in the US case in New York.
The spectre of terrorism was an obvious attempt to capitalise on the political climate in India, with the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards having taken place in October 1984, as well as the rising concern in the USA of attacks and general “world terrorism,” stemming from crises in Lebanon and Iran. It was a desperate gambit to obscure UCC’s responsibility and sidestep the damaging questions.1
So Union Carbide changed tack and began to blame the disaster on a “disgruntled employee.” They paid for the only study ever to take the sabotage theory seriously, which concluded that sabotage had occurred through the deliberate introduction of water into the MIC tank by one or more disgruntled workers. Because the study had no scientific basis, it has never been used as evidence in a court of law. Yet Union Carbide, and its current owner Dow Chemical, continues to cite it shamelessly.
UCC itself has cast doubt on the sabotage theory. In 1985:
- Warren Anderson stated that there was “no evidence whatsoever that sabotage was behind the incident at Bhopal.”
- Jackson Browning, Carbide’s VP for Health, Safety and Environmental Affairs, testified that because of the design, a deliberate introduction of water into the MIC tank was virtually impossible.
UCC claims it knows the identity of the “saboteur,” yet has never publicly named him. To do so would invite a libel suit during which the facts of the disaster and the sabotage theory would be open to scrutiny. To this day the company portrays itself as a victim of sabotage.
Debunking the Sabotage Theory
Even if there was a mysterious saboteur, who put water into the MIC tank and caused the chemical reaction, the blame would still lie with Union Carbide. Here are a few reasons why:
- Were the MIC process vulnerable to sabotage, the fault would lie with UCC, which owned the technology & designed the plant. “Such a hazardous process should not have been vulnerable to the crude form of sabotage alleged,” said Chemical Insight, 1986. “If water could be admitted to Tank 610 by unscrewing by a union hand, this tells its own sorry tale.” (Chemical Safety Specialist, 1986) Whether or not someone did it on purpose or by accident, Union Carbide set the stage so that such an incident was possible to begin with.
- Sabotage would be irrelevant to any legal determination of liability. Even if sabotage were established, Carbide would be liable for allowing it to happen: an act by an employee is not an ‘act by a stranger,’ which is the only legal distinction that could let it off the hook.
- Even in case of “sabotage by a stranger,” safety systems should have prevented the disaster. None were in use, and even if they had been they were incapable of coping with the scale of the disaster. The reason for the disaster was UCC’s financial scrimping at the outset (using untested technology and cutting back on safety devices – which typically cost 15-30 % of a plant’s startup) and UCC cutting back on maintenance and personnel (saving $1.5 million in 1983 alone).
- A 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant by US engineers found, among other things, failing valves, corroded pipes, untrained staff and a severely inadequate water spray and warned of the danger of “a major toxic release.” UCC refused to heed their warnings. Is it any wonder there was a disaster?
Every investigation, with the sole exception of one sponsored by Union Carbide, has concluded that poor maintenance was the likeliest cause. The Centre for Scientific & Industrial Research found a mesh of causes: an excessive store of ultra-hazardous MIC (some 80 times EU limits), an incautious design, poor materials, faulty alarms and no safety back-up. For years before the disaster UCC had ignored warnings of danger at the Bhopal plant. Instead it instituted cuts wherever it could to save money, which resulted in every single safety mechanism being out of commission at the time of the disaster. Read more about how UCC ignored the warnings in The Lead Up to Disaster (1980-1984).
The Bhopal plant was sabotaged – by the negligence and cost-cutting of Union Carbide.
1Paraphrased from Larry Everest’s book “Behind the Poison Cloud”