Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Bhopal gas tragedy was the deadliest gas leak incident in India, also the worst in the world. It was on the night of 2-3 December 1984 at Union Carbide India Limited[UCIL] that death knocked on the doorsteps of several sleeping innocents of Bhopal. Over half a million people were exposed to Methyl Isocynate[MIC] and went to a never ending sleep silently.
The UCIL factory was primarily built in 1969 to produce the pesticide Sevin(Carbaryl) using Methyl Isocynate as an intermediate. The chemical process involved methylamine reacting with phosgene to produce MIC which in turn reacted with 1-naphthol to form the final product. In 1980’s, an important event was marked when the demand for these pesticides had fallen but production continued at its regular pace leading to a build up of unused stores of MIC. Originally, the Bhopal facility housed three underground liquid MIC tanks: E610, E611 and E619. Union Carbide Corporation(UCC) safety regulations specified that no one tank should be filled more than 50% ie. 30 tons with liquid MIC. Each tank was then pressurised by an inert nitrogen gas which in turn allowed liquid MIC to be pumped out and it ensured to keep impurities away from the tank. Unfortunately, in October 1984, tank E610 lost its ability to hold the inert gas which implied failure to pump MIC. At that time, it contained 42 tons of liquid MIC. Shortly, after failure, MIC production was halted, however with the flare tower still out of service, production was resumed in late November. It is important to note that MIC of the other tank was used whereas an attempt to establish pressure in E610 failed on December 1.
There were various incidents that were responsible for the tragedy. Firstly, MIC tank alarms were not working since last 4 years. Secondly, the flare tower could only handle a quarter of the gas that leaked. Further, to reduce costs, refrigeration system was idle where MIC was kept at 20 degrees Celsius against the advised 4.5 degree Celsius. By the same token, the steam boiler intended to clean the pipes was non-operational. The most important factor remains that MIC being water soluble could not be stopped to escape due to weak water pressure of deluge guns. Into the bargain, carbon steel valves were used at the factory despite knowing that they tend to corrode when exposed to acid. Other issues included the design of the MIC plant was Indianized by UCIL engineers following government guidelines in order to maximise the use of indigenous materials and products. Further promotions were halted which in turn seriously affected the employee morale. To boot, workers were forced to use English manuals, even though only a few had grasp of the language. By the same token no maintenance supervisor was placed on night shift and instrument readings were taken every two hours against the required one hour readings.
1976 Two local trade unions complained of pollution within the plant
1981 A worker was accidentally splashed with phosgene gas while maintenance. In a panic state, he removed his mask and inhaled a significant amount of toxic phosgene which costed him his life
1982 A MIC leak affected 18 workers, none of them wearing a mask
1982 MIC supervisor suffered severe chemical burns
1983 Leaks of MIC, chlorine, monoethylamine, phosgene and carbon
1984 Leaks in combination reported
During the late evening of 2nd December, 1984, water was believed to have entered a side pipe and into tank E610 containing 42 tons of MIC. This introduction of water resulted into a runaway exothermic reaction, further accelerated by factors such as the presence of iron from corroding non stainless steel pipelines, contaminants and high ambient temperatures.
Events on 2nd December late evening
10:30p.m. Pressure in tank E610 was normal
11:00p.m. Pressure increased by a factor of five to 10 psi
11:30p.m. Workers experienced minor exposure and began looking for leaks
11:45p.m. One leak found and reported to MIC supervisor
12:00 a.m. Decision made to address it after 12:15 tea break
12:40 a.m. Temperature touched 25degrees Celsius and pressure reached beyond 40 psi
12:45 a.m. One employee witnessed concrete slab above tank E610 crack as emergency relief valve bursted open
12:50 a.m. Pressure increased to 55psi
When the concentration of MIC in and around the plant became impossible to tolerate, employees triggered plant’s alarm system, though, activation of system triggered 2 siren alarms, one sounding inside UCIL and the other to the sleeping city of Bhopal. However, the two siren systems were decoupled from one another in 1982 in order to avoid alarming the public around the factory over tiny leaks. This was exactly repeated, while the alarm buzzed within the factory alarming the deserted burial, the city inhaled MIC while sleeping.
Some woke up and started to escape while others died on the spot. There was a perfect lack of communication between UCIL and Bhopal authority where UCIL fakely confirmed everything was okay whereas city’s Hamidia Hospital suspected ammonia instead of phosgene. Later, it became clear, it wasn’t any mild component like ammonia but the deadliest of all phosgene which hospital staff had no antidote for. Over half a million went through coughing, eye irritation, blepharospasm, blood vomits, choking, pulmonary oedema and reflexogenic circulatory collapse. They cried and begged for medicine and then finally went to a never ending sleep.
Cause of the disaster
Though the cause of disaster still remains a matter of debate but the common ones are as discussed.
This point argues that the incident was caused by an imminent combination of under-maintained and neglected facilities, an incapacitated attitude towards safety and an undertrained workforce which enabled water to penetrate MIC tanks.
This point argues that it was physically impossible for water to enter the tank without intentional human effort which develops a background that water entered the tank when a rogue employee concertedly hooked a water hose directly to an empty valve on side of the tank. UCC went a step ahead and accused Indian government of taking extensive actions to hide this possibility.
An essential point to be noted is that safety audits were done yearly in US and EU but only once in every two years in other parts of the world.
1982 Business Confidential audit by UCC
Senior officials were well aware of 61 hazards of phosgene/MIC units in Bhopal
1984 Internal UCC report warned of a runaway reaction in MIC storage tanks and planned response would not be efficient to prevent the catastrophe.
However, the 1984 report was never forwarded to Bhopal plant.
It was discovered as the gas cloud was composed mainly of materials denser than air, it remained close to ground and spreaded in surrounding community. Also, due to height and stature, children and people of short height suffered maximum fatalities.
Later UCC Chairman and CEO Warren Anderson travelled to India with his technical team. He was immediately placed under house arrest and requested to leave the country within 24 hours.
In 1985, Indian government passed Bhopal Gas Leak Act allowing. GOI to act as legal representative for victims of disaster.
Compensation and Liability
In 1985, Federal Court suggested fundamental human decency and ordered for an immediate help by UCC which could be quickly distributed through International Red Cross.
In 1987, US Courts of Appeal said UCIL was a separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India.
In 1991, Supreme Court in India agreed to 470 million$ offer of UCC, however Bhopal local authorities charged Anderson of manslaughter attracting a penalty of 10 years in prison.
In 1998, when UCC wanted to sell its shares in UCIL, it was directed by Supreme Court to finance a 500 bed hospital for medical care of survivors. Thus, Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre(BMHRC) was inaugrated and obliged to give free care to survivors for eight years.
In 2004, Supreme Court ordered GOI to release any remaining settlement funds to victims. Later in 2010, seven former UCIL employees, all Indian nationals and many in old age were convicted of causing death by negligence. They were each sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined Rs. 1,00,000. However, all were released at the earliest possible
In 1999, Sahu v/s Union of India was the most important case that sought damages for the personal injury, medical monitoring and injunctive relief for cleanup of drinking water and environment. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2012 and Anderson subsequently died in 2014.
1985 GOI gave widow pension of Rs.200 per month
1985 GOI gave Rs.1500 to families with monthly income less than Rs.500
1990 Interim relief of Rs. 200 was paid to everyone in family born before the disaster
2003 Final claim personal injury Rs.25000
2003 Death claim Rs.62000
Famous analysis by researcher Arthur D. Little
This theory argues that workers had been cleaning out pipes with water nearby. This water was diverted due to a combination of improper maintenance, leaking and clogging eventually reaching MIC storage tank. Arthur argues Negligence argument was impossible for a variety of reasons-
1. Pipes used by nearby workers were only ½ inch against 10 feet height required to enable the water to backflow into the MIC tank.
2. A key intermediate valve would have had to be open for the negligence argument to apply.
3. In order for water to have reached the MIC tank from pipe cleaning area, it would have had to flow through a significant network of pipes ranging from 6-8 inches in diameter. However, investigations by Indian government in 1985 reflected that the pipes were bone dry.
Therefore Arthur theory supports the worker sabotage argument.
Long Term Effects
Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR) was forbidden to publish health data till 1994 where 36 wards were marked as gas affected by the authorities.
The important health effects are
1. Overmortality and overmorbidity in exposed group
Associated System Disease/Problem
Eyes Chronic conjunctivitis, scars on cornea, corneal opacities, early cataracts
Respiratory Tracts Obstructive/restrictive disesase, pulmonary fibrosis, aggravation of TB and chronic bronchitis
Neurological System Impairment of memory, finer motor skills, numbness
Psychological Problem Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTDS)
Children’s health Peri and neonatal deaths increased, failure to grow, intellectual impairment
Infrastructure and Environmental Impact
Days after the incident took place, the soil and water were declared contaminated, fishing industry suffered where fish consumption was declared unfit. The soil turned infertile and the crops somewhat deadly to consume. Earlier Government planned flats in two and four storey buildings in what was called the widow’s colony outside Bhopal. The water did not reach the upper floors and it was not possible to keep the cattle, their main source of livelihood. Basic infrastructure like buses, schools, roads, shops etc. went missing. The worst part remains that the cleanup is not over till date.
Every anniversary is marked by demonstrations, sit ins, hunger strikes, marches and ending with burning of an effigy of Warren Anderson. The best known activist is Satnath Sarangi who founded Sambhavna trust, a clinic for gas affected patients.
Some important organisations
1.Bhopal Medical Appeal
2. Chingari Trust
3.Students for Bhopal,USA
An important factor remains that in 2012, Wikileaks released an email cache related to Stratfor where it was engaged by Dow Chemicals to spy on public and personal lives of activists. Later the firm refrained from answering.
1999 Film: Bhopal Express
2002 Novel: A breath of fresh air
2007 Novel: Animal’s people
2014 Film: Bhopal: A prayer for rain
Laws after Bhopal Tragedy Lesson
1987 Factories Act, 1948 amended
1989 Hazardous waste(Management and Handling) rules
1991 Public Liability and Insurance Act
2010 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage
The chemicals abandoned at Bhopal MIC plant continue to leak and contaminate groundwater. They pose a dramatic health hazard as the area around the plant was used as a dumping ground. Further, in 1989, UCC laboratory tests reveal water samples around factory are unfit for drinking and 21% of factory premises were seriously polluted. Similarly, a 1999 Greenpeace study reveals contamination via a wide range of metals like copper, naphthol, mercury, sevin, tarry, nickel and lead, and soil contamination 6 million times higher than expected. Into the bargain, a 2004 BBC site investigation revealed benzene hexachloride and mercury held in open container and loose on ground. UK laboratory further claimed water to be 10,000 times contaminated by a carcinogen toxin.
Why no Closure?
There are a variety of reasons of the failure to close the Bhopal gas tragedy incident. Firstly, ICMR failed Bhopal, though it was known that MIC when reacts with water at high temperatures, could release as many as 300 highly toxic chemicals, research was carried out to check toxicity of pure MIC, that too on animals. Secondly, Supreme Court brokered deal ending all civil and criminal cases against company by arriving at a compensation of 1/7 of origin demand. Thirdly, many deaths were not counted and multiple institutions were constituted resulting into no hierarchy and inappropriate fund distribution. Finally, the settlement was no more than Rs. 15000 per victim. In actuality, the real victims were not identified and claims exceeding Bhopal’s population were attended carelessly. By the same token, the factory used to manufacture three pesticides: carbaryl, aldicarl and g-HCH. This waste still lies in Bhopal. Around, 350 tonnes of waste has been kept in a leaking shed polluting soil and water. Lastly, the investigation was not upto the mark where top Government institute like National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI) concluded that due to extremely low permeability of black and yellow silty clay, there is limited movement of contaminants to soil and groundwater which is false given the higher permeability at the site.
Even after 30 years, Government of India is still trying to fix the liability of UCIL. This is in contrast to the 2009 incident when BP’s oil drilling led to a devastating spill in Gulf of Mexico and US President Barack Obama held them responsible and made them pay for damage. Similarly, in 1989, when Exxon spilled gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska, the compensation for dead seals of Atlantic was fixed at US $1billion as against Bhopal relief of US $470 million. Therefore, the dead seals of Atlantic were valued higher than the half a million victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Bhopal gas tragedy was the deadliest industrial disaster till date and it appears people have learnt a lesson. Bhopal must never be forgotten and Dow Chemical must be held liable for toxic waste and plants remediation cost. The Cartagena Protocol on Bio safety is world’s first such attempt to hold operators responsible for damage. Therefore issue of Corporate responsibility is crucial.
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