Next month is the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant near the Madhya Pradesh city of Bhopal in central India. It is a tale of corporate greed and failure of American law that is mostly ignored in the west. While the American setting of 9/11 ensured it would became the mythological event of the millennial generation, about 800 more people died in the 3 December 1984 Bhopal disaster than were killed by the four planes 17 years later on 11 September 2001. And unlike 9/11, the Bhopal death toll kept rising after the first day. Three times more died in the next 72 hours and in the end Indian authorities estimate 17,000 Indians were killed as a result of the Bhopal gas leak. And while Americans argue over what should be done with their Ground Zero, Bhopal residents contend with the effects of their Chemical Hiroshima a generation on, including death, health problems and contaminated groundwater. (photo from Wikimedia commons)
The killer was 42 tonnes of Methyl isocyanate (MIC). MIC is highly flammable and highly toxic chemical used to make rubber. It is so toxic in small measures that scientists recommend it not be more than 2 parts to a million of any solution. 42 tonnes is a large amount. MIC was a crucial interim stage for the plant's eventual output: an insecticide called carbaryl. At Bhopal over half a million people were exposed to this filthy compound.
The nightshift on 2nd of December 1984 was blissfully unaware of the silent disaster that was unfolding around them. But it was only a matter of time. The pesticide plant three 3kms out of town was old and creaking. The pipes were corroded and Union Carbide cutbacks meant the crews were too overstretched to notice deadly gas had started leaking from an overloaded storage tank. A worker first noticed a problem an hour before midnight and he reported it to management. Nothing else was done about it. As the problem worsened over the next two hours a frightened worker raised the alarm. People were starting to cough and vomit, there were irritated eyes and many felt suffocated. The panicked management team shut the alarm down quickly and sat on the problem for yet another hour before finally sounding the siren to evacuate.
By 2am the vapours had being doing their deadly work for at least three hours. The poison spread rapidly keeping low to the ground. Many died on the spot as they came in contact with the poison. Hundreds more were trampled to death in the rush to flee the contaminated plant. The final death toll is disputed, it is still going on and some say it may be as high as 20,000 people. Another 2,000 animals also perished. Timothy White in Bhopal Express says that half a million citizens would be maimed by the noxious breezes of their Chemical Hiroshima.
Union Carbide did an “investigation” to find out how the gas escaped. They put it down to bad luck or sabotage. Union Carbide blamed its Indian subsidiary for falsifying safety reports and someone had either “inadvertently or deliberately" pumped 600 litres of water into one of the three liquid MIC tanks. The water trigged a heat generating chemical reaction. Chloroform decomposed releasing chloride ions which corroded the stainless steel tank. The tank eventually collapsed under high temperature and pressure, releasing the deadly methyl isocyanate.
Even the company’s admission there were critical violations of safety procedure managed to make the local operation look bad without any sense of responsibility falling on head office. India was predictably outraged with Union Carbide’s whitewashed report. They retaliated by denying Union Carbide investigators access to important documents. India claims workers put only a small amount of excess water into the tanks and some other reason caused the chain reaction. It was the American-design safety system that was flawed.
The result is that Bhopal plant employees still do not know what actually happened to this day. The city is still an environmental disaster area and people are still getting sick. It was Jackson B. Browning, Union Carbide’s vice president for health and environmental affairs who made the truest company statement in the entire disaster. "Now, we can confidently say,” he said smugly after the investigation, “it can't happen here." By “here” Browning meant America not India. In the end it was only the fears of the local audience that mattered.
In any case, Browning was probably lying. If the Indian investigators are closer to the truth than Union Carbide then no-one still knows how it happened exactly, and therefore it couldn’t happen “here”. Connecticut-based Union Carbide decided the interests of its shareholders were more important than the people of India when they used the little known common law legal doctrine of forum non conveniens to avoid being sued in the more lucrative American market. The doctrine balances foreign and local factors to determine the right country to host the litigation. The Chief Justice of India said the US was the only hope the victims have, but New York District Court Steve Keenan disagreed and said India was where the witnesses and evidence were and it should host the trial.
Back in India the government lodged a $3.3 billion claim against Union Carbide. But by 1989, Union Carbide had wheedled the Indian lawsuit down to just $470 million. The figure was based on the subsequently discredited figure that only 3,000 died and 100,000 were affect. The settlement discharged the company of all future responsibilities. It was small compensation for the lives of 17,000 Indian coolies in the service of western capitalism and with over a half million claimants, it amounted to just $550 to each survivor. There have been delays in getting even this pittance distributed with over 80 percent still in the fund in 2006. By that time Union Carbide was under new management. Dow Chemical bought the company for $10 billion in 2001
Anger is still palpable in northern India. Now every 3 December they march through the streets of Bhopal burning an effigy of Warren Anderson. Anderson was Union Carbide’s CEO in 1984. He flew to Bhopal after the accident. Indian authorities detained him and then released him on $2,000 bail. Anderson fled the country never to return. In 1991 a Bhopal judge reinstated criminal charges against him but twelve years later (under G.W. Bush), the U.S. State Department formally denied India's request for his extradition. Anderson continues to play retirement golf in the Hamptons while India says is an absconder from justice.
But there is an even greater failure of law than Anderson’s lack of punishment. The forum non conveniens doctrine means that American firms will never be held to account when things go wrong overseas. In practice what this means is the problems are buried under the carpet. The practice also means that American firms have a vested interest in moving operations abroad where regulations are lax and they can avoid US tort liability. Dow Chemical probably see no irony in relying on Asia to reverse sliding revenues. Chair and CEO Andrew Liveris says “we remain tightly focused on those factors we can control." Presumably that means continuing to avoid all legal, ethical and moral responsibility to the horrendous legacy of Bhopal.