is more irresponsible: British Petroleum or Union Carbide?
Will the US Gulf Coast Residents be Treated as the Bophal Residents
Were (and still are)?
The Bhopal disaster was an
industrial catastrophe that occurred at a pesticide plant owned and
operated by Union Carbide (UCIL) in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Around midnight on the intervening night of December 2–3, 1984, the
plant released methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxins, resulting
in the exposure of over 500,000 people. Estimates vary on the death
toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of
Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas
release. Other government agencies estimate 15,000 deaths. Others
estimate that 8,000 died within the first weeks and that another 8,000
have since died from gas-related diseases.
Some 25 years after the gas leak,
390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the UCIL plant continue to
leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of
Bhopal residents who depend on it, though there is some
dispute as to whether the chemicals still stored at the site pose any
continuing health hazard. There are currently civil and criminal
cases related to the disaster ongoing in the United States District
Court, Manhattan and the District Court of Bhopal, India against Union
Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical Company, with an Indian arrest
warrant pending against Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide at the
time of the disaster. No one has yet been prosecuted.
of background and causes
The UCIL factory was established in 1969 near Bhopal. 50.9% was
owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and 49.1 % by various
Indian investors, including public sector financial institutions.
It produced the pesticide carbaryl
(trademark Sevin). In 1979 a methyl isocyanate (MIC) production plant
was added to the site. MIC, an intermediate in carbaryl manufacture,
was used instead of less hazardous but more expensive materials. UCC
understood the properties of MIC and its handling requirements.
During the night of December 2–3, 1984, large amounts of water
entered tank 610, containing 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. The
resulting exothermic reaction increased the temperature inside the tank
to over 200 °C (392 °F), raising the pressure to a
level the tank was not designed to withstand. This forced the emergency
venting of pressure from the MIC holding tank, releasing a large volume
of toxic gases into the atmosphere. The reaction sped up because of the
presence of iron in corroding non-stainless steel pipelines. However,
laboratory experiments conducted by CSIR (Dec. 1985 Report) and UCC
scientists do not support the effect of iron as having any effect in
speeding up the reaction. A mixture of poisonous gases flooded the city
of Bhopal, causing great panic as people woke up with a burning
sensation in their lungs. Thousands died immediately from the effects
of the gas and many were trampled in the panic.
Theories of how the water entered the tank differ. At the time,
workers were cleaning out pipes with water, and some claim that owing
to bad maintenance and leaking valves, it was possible for the water to
leak into tank 610.
In December 1985 The New York Times reported that according to
UCIL plant managers the hypothesis of this route of entry of water was
tested in the presence of the Central Bureau Investigators and was
found to be negative.
UCC also maintains that this route was not possible, and that it was an
act of sabotage by a "disgruntled worker" who introduced water directly
into the tank.
However, the company's investigation team found no evidence of the
The Trade Union Report failed to mention that the investigation was
totally controlled by the government investigators denying UCC
investigators any access to inspecting the ill-fated tank.
The 1985 reports
give a picture of what led to the disaster and how it developed,
although they differ in details.
Factors leading to the gas leak include:
- The use of hazardous chemicals (MIC) instead of less dangerous
- Storing these chemicals in large tanks instead of over 200 steel
- Possible corroding material in pipelines
- Poor maintenance after the plant ceased production in the early
- Failure of several safety systems (due to poor maintenance and
- Safety systems being switched off to save money—including the MIC
tank refrigeration system which alone would have prevented the disaster.
The problem was made worse by the plant's location near a densely
populated area, non-existent catastrophe plans and shortcomings in
health care and socio-economic rehabilitation. Analysis shows that the
parties responsible for the magnitude of the disaster are the two
owners, Union Carbide Corporation and the Government of India, and to
some extent, the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
Short term health effects
- The gas cloud composed mainly of materials denser than the
surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through
the surrounding community. The initial effects of exposure were
coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation.
People awakened by these symptoms fled away from the plant. Those who
ran inhaled more than those who had a vehicle to ride. Owing to their
height, children and other people of shorter stature inhaled higher
concentrations. Many people were trampled trying to escape.
- Thousands of people had succumbed by the morning hours. There
were mass funerals and mass cremations as well as disposal of bodies in
the Narmada river. 170,000 people were treated at hospitals and
temporary dispensaries. 2,000 buffalo, goats, and other animals were
collected and buried. Within a few days, leaves on trees yellowed and
fell off. Supplies, including food, became scarce owing to suppliers'
safety fears. Fishing was prohibited as well, which caused further
- A total of 36 wards were marked by the authorities as being "gas
affected", affecting a population of 520,000. Of these, 200,000 were
below 15 years of age, and 3,000 were pregnant women. In 1991, 3,928
deaths had been certified. Independent organizations recorded 8,000
dead in the first days. Other estimations vary between 10,000 and
30,000. Another 100,000 to 200,000 people are estimated to have
permanent injuries of different degrees.
- It is estimated that 20,000 have died since the accident from
gas-related diseases. Another 100,000 to 200,000 people are estimated
to have permanent injuries.
- The quality of the epidemiological and clinical research varies.
Reported and studied symptoms are eye problems, respiratory
difficulties, immune and neurological disorders, cardiac failure
secondary to lung injury, female reproductive difficulties and birth
defects among children born to affected women. Other symptoms and
diseases are often ascribed to the gas exposure, but there is no good
research supporting this.
- There is a clinic established by a group of survivors and
activists known as Sambhavna. Sambhavna is the only clinic that will
treat anybody affected by the gas, or the subsequent water poisoning,
and treats the condition with a combination of Western and traditional
Indian medicines, and has performed extensive research.
- Union Carbide as well as the Indian Government long denied
permanent injuries by MIC and the other gases. In January, 1994, the International
Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) visited Bhopal to investigate
the health status among the survivors as well as the health care system
and the socio-economic rehabilitation.
- The reports from Indian Council of Medical Research
were not completely released until around 2003.
- For a review of the research on the health effects of the Bhopal
disaster, see Dhara & Dhara (2002).
from Union Carbide
- The Government of India passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act
that gave the government rights to represent all victims in or outside
- UCC offered US$ 350 million, the insurance sum.
The Government of India claimed US$ 3.3 billion from UCC.
In 1999, a settlement was reached under which UCC agreed to pay US$470
million (the insurance sum, plus interest) in a full and final
settlement of its civil and criminal liability.
- When UCC wanted to sell its shares in UCIL, it was directed by
the Supreme Court to finance a 500-bed hospital for the medical care of
the survivors. Bhopal
Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) was inaugurated in
1998. It was obliged to give free care for survivors for eight years.
- After the accident, no one under the age of 18 was registered.
The number of children exposed to the gases was at least 200,000.
- Immediate relief was decided two days after the tragedy.
- Relief measures commenced in 1985 when food was distributed for a
short period and ration cards were distributed.
- Widow pension of the rate of Rs 200/per month (later Rs 750) was
- One-time ex-gratia payment of Rs 1,500 to families with monthly
income Rs 500 or less was decided.
- Each claimant was to be categorised by a doctor. In court, the
claimants were expected to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that death
or injury in each case was attributable to exposure. In 1992, 44
percent of the claimants still had to be medically examined.
- From 1990 interim relief of Rs 200 was paid to everyone in the
family who was born before the disaster.
- The final compensation (including interim relief) for personal
injury was for the majority Rs 25,000 (US$ 830). For death claim, the
average sum paid out was Rs 62,000.
- Effects of interim relief were more children sent to school, more
money spent on treatment, more money spent on food, improvement of
- The management of registration and distribution of relief showed
- In 2007, 1,029,517 cases were registered and decided. Number of
awarded cases were 574,304 and number of rejected cases 455,213. Total
compensation awarded was Rs.1,546.47 crores.
- Because of the smallness of the sums paid and the denial of
interest to the claimants, a sum as large as Rs 10 billion is expected
to be left over after all claims have been settled.