Corporate crime goes unpunished in Bhopal

NEW DELHI – It started in the middle of the night on Dec. 2, 1984. That was the fateful night when poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) spread as a deadly blanket over the city from the rusty big tanks of Union Carbide India, Ltd. (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Inc. During that night, about 50 tons of MIC from UCIL’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, leaked into the surroundings.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy was more severe than the Sept. 11 tragedy – 8,000 people were killed on that night itself. Approximately 500,000 people have poison circulating in their blood streams.

Generation after generation have to bear the impact from this toxic corporate legacy. The chemicals in MIC can alter the normal physiological processes in the human body and have a long-term impact on the reproductive, immune and nervous systems. All these illnesses are still occuring in Bhopal.

Mothers are reluctant to feed their newborns because they know their breast milk contains poisonous chemicals from MIC. Birth rates are down and birth defects are up. The poisoning also causes reproductive disorders like prolonged mestruation, sterility, low sperm count and repeated miscarriages. People hesitate to marry a boy or a girl from the area.

Now where is the killer Union Carbide? They abandoned the factory and left the country. Their search for cheap labor and maximum profit-making motive was the reason for this major tragedy. In order to save about 700 rupees per day ($14) management had switched off the refrigeration units, which, according to some expert opinions, was the reason for the leakage.

Union Carbide made huge profits from the Indian pesticide market but did not care about the laborers nor the environs. The prescribed inspections of valves, pipes, pumps, etc. were rare, and replacements were often not made for up to two years.

International standards on storage limits MIC storage to half a ton. At the Bhopal plant they kept the storage capacity at over 90 tons. On the night of disaster 67 tons of MIC were stored in two tanks.

The cruelest thing was when people poured into hospitals by the thousands, many beginning to fall into comas, the doctors called up the plant to find out what they ought to do. They were told that the gas is like teargas and were advised to perform water washes. Jackson B. Browning, director of health, safety and environmental affairs at Union Carbide Corporation, continued to refer to the poisonous chemicals that had killed thousands as nothing more than a potent tear gas.

Within the first week of the disaster, four medical experts came to Bhopal from the U.S., including Brian Ballyentine, a Pentagon toxicologist, and Dr. Hans Weil, chairman of pulmonary medicine at New Orleans’ Tulane University Medical School. They told the media that the leaked gases would not have any long-term health effects on the exposed people. This was in sharp contrast to the subsequent facts and research findings, placing their medical ethics into the dustbin. Well over 150,000 chronically-ill survivors still need medical attention.

Union Carbide agreed to a settlement of just $470 million in a civil suit in the Indian Supreme Court. Estimates of the damages were put at $1.5 billion.

Even 18 years after the unthinkable disaster, gas victims are hopeful of getting justice in the courts. But their long-term waiting has no end. Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemical Company. Dow’s environmental track record includes the original manufacturing and distributions of banned chemicals such as DDT, Agent Orange and asbestos.

Now it is the responsibility of Dow to compensate the victims. In acquiring Union Carbide’s assets, Dow also assumed responsibility for Union Carbide’s liabilities. Environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, and the Bhopal survivors’ organizations are calling for international agreements to be established to hold corporations criminally and financially liable for industrial disasters and ongoing pollution.

Send a fax or e-mail to Dow CEO Michael Parker to demand justice for the victims and that the corporation assume responsibility in cleaning up Bhopal.

Although unnamed sources in the Indian government announced that it is determined to press the United States for the extradition of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson, it’s doubtful justice will be done unless a mass movement demands it.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org