Fresh evidence on Bhopal disaster

December 04, 2002

THE company that built and owned the Bhopal chemical plant in India cut crucial corners in its design, documents just released in the US suggest.

The accident at Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal in 1984 killed 8000 people immediately and injured at least 150,000. It remains the worst industrial disaster on record, and the victims are still dying. The company paid $470 million compensation to a trust in 1989.

The survivors say they received around $500 each and claim the clean-up efforts were inadequate.

Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide, still insists that Carbide's Indian subsidiary was wholly responsible for the design and running of the plant. "Union Carbide maintained a very "hands-off" relationship with Union Carbide India on virtually all matters," John Musser, who inherited the Bhopal brief at Dow, told New Scientist this week.

But in the latest of a series of legal actions, Bhopal survivors launched a class action in New York state in 1999. Last month the court forced the company to release internal documents- and some contradict its claims.

Under a policy of forcing foreign companies to invest, the Indian government had asked Carbide to make insecticides such as Sevin in India instead of importing them. It also insisted that the company raise at least a quarter of the investment from local shareholders.

But a 1972 memo says that if Carbide issued enough shares to raise the $28 million estimated cost, the company's stake in its Indian subsidiary would drop below 53 per cent. To prevent this it would have to "reduce the amount of investment... to $20.6 million", with the cuts "mainly on the Sevin project".

This meant using what another memo admitted were unproven technologies, mostly on systems not directly involved in the accident. However, the Sevin production system involved in the accident had had "only a limited trial run", the memo states.

New Scientist's investigation of the accident, and subsequent studies by the company and trade unions, showed that a faulty valve let nearly a tonne of water being used to clean pipes pour into a tank holding 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC), an intermediate in the production of Sevin. The resulting runaway reaction produced a cloud of toxic gas.

Musser still echoes Carbide's claims at the time, saying the accident was an "act of sabotage"- someone deliberately putting water in the tank. Regardless of how the water got into the MIC, the runaway reaction should have been contained. It wasn't, largely because Bhopal had far more limited emergency equipment than Carbide's US plant.

Crucially, Bhopal had no "knock-down" tank where the mass of chemicals that boiled out of the MIC tank might have settled. Then only gases would have escaped, which could have been burnt off by flare towers or by filtered out by a "scrubber".

But the Bhopal plant had only one flare, shut for repairs on the night of the accident. The US plant had a back-up. Bhopal's sole scrubber was overwhelmed by the mass of liquids and gases that boiled up it at a rate over 100 times what it was designed for.

So who was responsible for this design? Carbide's 1972 memo specified that the US headquarters would either perform all design work for the plant, or approve designs done elsewhere.

Also unlike the US plant, Bhopal's waste was poured into open lagoons to evaporate. Recent analyses of groundwater, soil and people near the plant have found high levels of heavy metals such as mercury and toxic organochlorine chemicals.

Earlier analyses by Indian agencies concluded there was no local contamination. Yet company memos from 1989, 1990 and 1995 show that Carbide's officials knew by 1989 that the Indian analyses were suspect and that there might be contamination, says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. When questioned by New Scientist, Musser did not confirm or deny that there was contamination but instead quoted the Indian analyses.

Campaigners hope the fresh evidence will persuade the Indian government to join the US lawsuit. Only then can the company be tried for negligence.
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US CONTACT - Michelle Soucy, New Scientist Boston Office:
Tel: 617-558-4939 or email michelle.soucy@newscientist.com

Written by Debora MacKenzie

New Scientist issue: 7 DECEMBER 2002

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New Scientist

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