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Man-made Natural Disasters
By Kevin Filan

The Bhopal Gas Leak


When dealing with corrosive and potentially dangerous chemicals, valves, pumps and pipes should be inspected every two weeks and replaced every six months. Inspections at Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India were infrequent, and some of the valves had not been replaced for over two years. The industry standard mandates a six-month training period for workers dealing with Methyl Isocyanate: the workers at Bhopal received 15 days. By accepted industry standards, chemical companies should store no more than ˝ ton of MIC in one place. On the night of December 2, 1984, the Bhopal plant was storing 67 tons. Local newspapers had denounced the Bhopal plant as a disaster waiting to happen in a series of reports which had been dismissed by government officials and Union Carbide representatives as "sensationalist." That night those reports would be shown to be painfully accurate, as Bhopal became the scene of the worst industrial disaster in history.

During routine maintenance water was released into storage tank MC 610. It reacted violently with the liquid MIC, increasing the pressure in the tank. Two hours later, at approximately 11:30pm, workers began complaining of eye irritation. At first they looked about for a minor leak, then discovered that the pressure in Tank 610 had risen from 2 psi to 40psi, while large cracks were beginning to appear in the concrete which surrounded it. At 12:45 a.m. a safety valve blew, releasing a large plume of MIC into the atmosphere.

It was a cool night in Bhopal, with temperatures in the mid-fifties and a stiff breeze blowing from the northwest. The hot, heavy gas sank to the ground and blew through the heavily populated eastern part of the city. About twenty-five square miles of shanty towns were covered with the lethal vapors as the venting continued for two hours. The first victim staggered into Hamida Hospital at 1:15 a.m.: within hours every hospital in the area was jammed with thousands of people complaining of blindness, respiratory irritation, and other disorders. The streets were filled with people gagging and retching as they fled the cloud; many of the injured and incapacitated were trampled to death in the panic. Union Carbide officials were unprepared for a disaster of this scope: at first they claimed that MIC was merely an "irritant" and a "powerful tear gas," even as the death tolls mounted. When the cloud lifted you could mark its path by the trail of animal and human corpses littering the ground.

Thousands who were exposed to the gas cloud died immediately; still others lingered for agonizing days or weeks. Autopsies revealed lungs swollen to three times their normal size and congested with cherry-red blood and fluid. Bronchitis and pneumonia set in among many survivors, along with neurological damage, corneal inflammation, and other diseases. Many of the survivors also fell into profound states of depression as they buried family and friends. There are numerous estimates of the death toll, ranging from a low of 1,500 to a high of 5,000 (and unofficial estimates ranging past 100,000). In the confusion which followed the gas release, record-keeping was spotty… and the victims came largely from the residents of Jayaprakash Nagar, Kazi Camp, Chola Kenchi, and the Railway Colony, densely populated shanty towns which were closest to the plant and which were home to Bhopal's poorest citizens.

Union Carbide's public relations department was quick to express its sympathies … and to do everything it could to distance itself from the tragedy. There were claims of "willful sabotage" by some unnamed employee, claims intended to detract from the plant's notoriously bad safety record. UC's legal department dragged its heels for years, prevailing in several lawsuits brought in the United States and ultimately settling multibillion-dollar claims by the Indian government for $470 million. The amount was based on an estimate of 40,000 permanently disabled people: most observers believe that as many as 400,000 people were seriously disabled by the Bhopal release. This settlement was widely condemned by the Bhopal survivors… and evidence suggests that more than half of it went to line the pockets of corrupt Indian officials before it ever reached the people of Bhopal. There have been repeated efforts by the Indian government to bring high-ranking Union Carbide officials in America to trial for criminal negligence: to date all summonses have been ignored.


 

 


Mike Doughty



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