ENVIRONMENT

Terror in the morning

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 26 1985
ENVIRONMENT

Terror in the morning

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 26 1985

Terror in the morning

ENVIRONMENT

Barbara Cyrus says she thought that the strong odor permeating her house in Institute, W. Va., was from her cats’ litter box. But when the 50-year-old housewife opened her front door early last week, the toxic fumes from the gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant less than 600 m away almost made her faint. Recalled Cyrus: “I could see a yellow cloud above the plant. I knew right away it was gas.” As the cloud engulfed the town of 3,100, radio announcers warned people to stay indoors, close their windows and turn off air conditioners. Then, Union Carbide officials acted swiftly to tell Institute residents that the leaking chemical, aldicarb oxime, was far less toxic than the methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that leaked from a Union Carbide subsidiary plant in Bhopal, India, last December and killed 2,500 people. Still, many people fled from Institute, including Cyrus and her retired husband, Clifford, 63. Said Barbara Cyrus: “We worried after Bhopal—and when we saw the sky, we jumped into the car.”

The leaking gas, which escaped into

the air after three gaskets failed on a 500-gallon storage tank, caused respiratory problems, nausea and eye and throat irritation in at least 150 people. Those numbers are small compared to the many victims in Bhopal who are still feeling the effects of the world’s worst industrial accident. At the time of that disaster, 20,000 people were temporarily blinded by the 40 tons of leaking MIC and another 200,000 suffered eye, lung, liver, kidney and nervous system damage. Since then, the Indian Council of Medical Research has reported that thousands more have developed gastric problems. As well, a government study of 54 pregnant gas-affected women revealed that 36 gave birth to stillborn babies.

At the same time, exposure to the poison gas left many people too weak to return to their jobs. About 600,000 residents are still receiving food rations and medicine from the government. Those who earned less than 500 rupees ($57) a month were compensated with 1,500 rupees as interim relief. But there have been serious complaints about corruption and inefficiency in the distribution of money and supplies. In early June Bhopal police arrested 40 demonstrators during a protest against inadequate relief measures.

Union Carbide has so far given $1 million to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund in India and another $5 million

through the Indian Red Cross. Still, spokesmen say that the corporation’s largest expense will be settling the lawsuits that victims brought against the company. More than 80 U.S. lawyers representing 80,000 victims have launched almost 100 suits, including one by California lawyer Melvin Belli for $19.5 billion on behalf of 2,300 Indians.

Until now, no claim has been heard because U.S. federal court Judge John Keenan is still considering whether the suits should be conducted in American or Indian courts. Lawyers representing the Indian claimants say that the parent company is responsible for the alleged negligence of its Indian subsidiary and that the suits fall under U.S. jurisdiction. But company spokesmen argue that the claims should be heard in Indian courts—which do not award damages to punish defendants and hear cases solely on the basis of economic loss not suffering. Belli says that if the U.S. court decides in favor of Union Carbide, it may be as many as 14 years before the claims are heard because of the Indian courts’ backlog of cases. He declared: “These people cannot wait that long.”

By week’s end no Institute residents had sued Union Carbide. Still, because the accident appeared to be the result of design flaws, health and environmental officials had started to investigate the leak there—and discovered that 65 per

cent of the escaped gas had been methylene chloride, a solvent suspected of causing cancer. Meanwhile, faced with increasing criticism of the company’s safety record—another, although less dangerous, leak occurred last week at the company’s Charleston, W. Va., plant—chairman Warren Anderson appointed an internal committee to conduct an inquiry. One reason: within hours of the Bhopal incident the company closed part of the Institute plant for five months while workers installed a new $5-million system designed in part to at least contain similar leaks there.

In fact, Carbide officials at the Institute plant did not sound a public alarm until 20 minutes after the leak began because the safety system’s computers, which measure such things as wind direction and velocity, mistakenly indicated that the leaking gas would not move beyond the confines of the plant. As a result, many residents say that they are angry—and apprehensive. Barbara Cyrus, for one, says that even though she and her husband have lived in the town for eight years they are now considering selling their home and relocating. Declared Cyrus: “If it happened once it could happen again. The next time we might not be so lucky.”

-SHERRI AIKENHEAD with

AJOY BOSE