Lingering terror in Bhopal

Pat Ohlendorf December 17 1984

Lingering terror in Bhopal

Pat Ohlendorf December 17 1984

Lingering terror in Bhopal


Pat Ohlendorf

Many died in their sleep. But for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other residents of the central Indian city of Bhopal—awakened after midnight by penetrating, acrid fumes or the screams of neighbors—death came in agony hours or even days later. The reason: a deadly gas, methyl isocyanate, leaking from a nearby Union Carbide pesticide plant, literally boiled in the eyes, nasal passages and lungs of victims, causing excruciating pain and eventual death by suffocation. By week’s end, the worst industrial accident in history had killed nearly 2,500 people, blinded 20,000 more and affected as many as 200,000 other victims with damage to their eyes, lungs, livers, kidneys and nervous systems.

Anger: As 3,700 medical personnel at three hospitals in the city of 900,000 struggled to cope with the throngs of wounded and dying, as construction cranes removed the decomposing bodies of cattle and water buffalo and as mass funeral pyres burned, horror rapidly turned to anger. Police in the state of Madhya Pradesh arrested Warren Anderson, the chief executive officer of Union Carbide Corp., the U.S.-based multinational firm, when he arrived in Bhopal to investigate the accident. At week’s end, in Charleston, W. Va., three lawyers acting for two Bhopal residents who had relatives killed by the gas filed a $15-billion negligence suit against Union Carbide. And around the world individual communities looked at potentially dangerous chemical plants in their midst with fresh concern.

Last week’s leak was not the first indication of danger at the Bhopal plant, which is owned by a Union Carbide subsidiary and managed entirely by Indian personnel. Unlike a so-called “sister plant” in Institute, W. Va., near Charleston, which has never had a gas leak in its 25-year history, the Bhopal factory, which manufactures pesticides for sale in India and East Asia, has had several serious accidents since it began producing pesticides seven years ago. In December, 1981, a plant operator died after he neglected to change work clothes sprayed by phosgene, a deadly gas used by Germany in the First World War, and a precursor to methyl isocyanate. Then, two weeks after that fatality, another gas leak seriously injured 24 workers, although all survived. And in October, 1982, when a third gas leak

occurred, several workers were hurt in the stampede to safety.

After those incidents, opposition members of the Madhya Pradesh state legislative assembly urged the government to close the plant. But the state government refused, arguing that the state could not afford to close an operation that employed 1,000 workers. Declared Madhya Pradesh Labor Minister Tara Singh Niyogi in December, 1982: “Bhopal is safe and will be safe.”

Panicked: Although Union Carbide officials estimate that it will take several weeks to establish the causes of last week’s tragedy, some details of the plant’s operation that night are known. Unskilled workers were cleaning the

outside of the partly buried storage tank when its contents—15 tons of liquid methyl isocyanate—vaporized and escaped. But no qualified engineers were on duty at the factory, and when the alarm sounded workers panicked and fled. The chairman of India’s Central Water and Air Pollution Board, Dr. Nily Chaudhuri, in New Delhi, said that the situation was like “having an atom bomb and asking kids to play with it.” As well as the evident human frailty and failure, numerous technical questions surrounded the tragedy. Why did the temperature and pressure inside the tank rise rapidly, causing the gas to spew out? Why did the tank’s “scrub-

bers”—designed to neutralize any gas that might leak—fail to work? Shortly after the accident, Union Carbide officials at company headquarters in Danbury, Conn., denied that the Bhopal plant was different in any way from its sister plant in the United States. But they later revealed that they had decided not to install a sophisticated, computerized early-warning system at the Indian operation. Jackson Browning, the firm’s corporate director of health, safety and environmental affairs, said that the “insufficient availability of backup systems and spare parts” in India did not warrant installing the equipment.

Although the direct cause of the leak was not apparent, its effects were quick-

ly and hideously clear. About 1 a.m., as the terrified workers, wearing respirator masks, fled from the plant, a giant, mushroom-shaped cloud of poison gas from the defective tank floated toward the city. It struck first in the shantytowns that had sprung up near the plant, seeping into thin-walled hovels, built of dried mud, tin and wood, and killing hundreds. as they slept. Hundreds more—leaving their homes and the bodies of their dead relatives behind—ran out onto the dark roads, coughing and vomiting, their eyes streaming from the poison’s effect.

The full horror was revealed at dawn: the dying lay side by side with the dead

on the floors of overcrowded hospitals and clinics; plants and trees appeared shrivelled and yellow; and thousands of animal carcasses littered pastures and streets. And when local authorities broke down shanty doors that occupants had locked the night before, they found still more victims—those who had tried to shelter themselves from the poison but instead found their shacks turned into gas chambers. As survivors mingled in the overcrowded hospitals or wept and prayed by the rows of dead, others began placing fly-covered bodies into mass graves or onto the pyres—until supplies of firewood ran out. Few of Bhopal’s residents were untouched by what local workers are calling “devil’s

night.” Declared Indira Iyengar, the chairman of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity: “Many people are still asking me to explain what came in the night and blinded them and killed their families.”

Cancer: The future for those survivors—and for their city—is bleak because authorities expect that as many as 1,000 more people may die soon from poisoning and thousands more may never, regain their sight. As well, doctors fear that there will be other long-term effects. Among them: irreparable damage to body organs—and perhaps an epidemic of cancer. Surveying the devastation, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv

Gandhi, who broke off his election campaign to visit Bhopal hospitals, declared, “We will ask Union Carbide to pay compensation.”

In fact, Indian officials acted quickly to reinforce that claim against the company. Within hours of the gas leak, local police had placed five top officers of the plant under house arrest. And after they arrested Anderson three days later, they charged him and two Indian colleagues with seven offences, including criminal conspiracy, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, making the

atmosphere noxious to health and causing death by negligence.

Outside the guesthouse 100 protesters marched, some carrying placards that read “Hang Anderson.” The arrest and detention were the strongest actions ever undertaken by the Indian government against the head of a multinational company, but the confinement of the Union Carbide chairman was brief. Six hours after his detention, Anderson was free on $2,600 bail (his 1983 salary: $1.1 million) and under orders from the government to leave the country. Explained Madhya Pradesh state’s director of information, Sudip Bannerji: “His presence might provoke strong passions against him, and we do not consider his presence in this country desirable.”

Tragedy: Besides Anderson’s arrest, the Bhopal disaster had other effects on Union Carbide. On Dec. 7, thousands of miles from the scene of the tragedy, the company’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange went into the steepest decline of all stocks, closing at just under $37 (U.S.) a share, down from almost

$49 on the eve of the disaster. And in West Virginia, Union Carbide closed part of an almost identical pesticide plant until the Indian government finishes its investigation of the Bhopal leak. Declared Kaye Summers, an 18year-old student at West Virginia State College: “This incident in India brings it home, doesn’t it? Here in the valley we are producing something that can kill a thousand people, and I can see this plant from my classroom window.”

Fears: Indeed, throughout the world the Bhopal disaster raised new fears

and recalled earlier industrial accidents (page 30). Some officials, including one who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, argued that a similar disaster could happen almost anywhere. Declared Hugh Kaufman, assistant to the director of the EPA’S hazardous sites division: “It is just that we have been lucky enough not to have communities wiped out.” He added that chemical spills in the United States are “routine.”

Still, the greatest concern was in underdeveloped countries. The reason: the Bhopal catastrophe occurred only two weeks after another disaster caused by one of the worst gas explosions in history—at a propane depot on the outskirts of Mexico City. That explosion killed 452 people, most of whom were burned beyond recognition in the fire that swiftly followed the blast. In Bhopal, as in the poor Mexican neighborhood, the scenes of death and grief were numbingly similar.

Clearly, high population density around hazardous industries on two different continents—a pattern that is

common in developing nations as rural families stream into the cities in a desperate search for jobs—contributed to the scale of the disasters in Mexico and India. And last week the United Nations Environment Program, based in Nairobi, Kenya, urged governments to recognize that urban populations in developing countries will continue to expand. Declared UNEP deputy executive director J.C. Wheeler: “Potentially hazardous chemicals or manufacturing plants should be sited away from existing or planned urban areas.”

Risk: But other experts levelled more serious charges at multinational corporations, accusing the giant companies —some with capital assets greater than the gross national products of some developing countries—of taking advantage of lower safety regulations in the Third World. Said Jorge Niosi, an economic sociologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal: “Health and safety rules in Third World countries are much more relaxed. Most of the multinationals, especially in Third World countries, are less careful than they are at home.” For his part, U.S. environmental consultant Barry Castleman, who has long criticized a “double standard” in safety in the developed and developing countries, said: “Safety maintenance, worker education, worker training and drills to make sure the safety equipment works all take time—and time is money. There are plants all over the world waiting to blow up.”

In hard dollars, such observers argue, it may be cheaper for multinationals to risk compensating Third World victims of chemical spills, fires and explosions

instead of maintaining safety standards common to North America and Western Europe. Said Sohan Lai Passey, the secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress: “It is cheaper to defy safety precautions than to observe them.” He described India’s compensation laws as “outdated” and he noted that, under a 1923 act, the dependents of a worker killed on the job would now receive only $3,100. The act does not specify how much a company must pay if it is found responsible for the death of a nonemployee. Added Castleman: “Life

is cheap in India as it is in most developing countries.”

Luxuries: But officials at Union Carbide headquarters in Connecticut disagreed, maintaining that they would fairly compensate the surviving relatives of those who died in Bhopal. Indeed, some observers said that multinationals alone are not to blame for accidents in Third World factories. Said Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a clearing house for information on Latin America in Washington,

D.Ç.: “Planning ministers from the Third World actively seek toxic industries because they know the developed world does not want them but needs their products. It is a way of ensuring exports. They say quite openly that environmental and safety concerns are luxuries

that only the First World can afford.” This is the case in Brazil, for one, where for the past decade the military government has welcomed any multinational industries that would provide exports and where last February a pipeline leak in an area filled with chemical plants led to an explosion that killed 508 and left 9,000 homeless. Said Jeffrey Leonard, a senior associate with the Conservation Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit public policy think tank: “A Third World government will persuade a multinational to build a

chemical plant and will promise that an infrastructure will follow. Almost in variably, the infrastructure is never built. There are no proper railroads or highways or even fire departments. Emergency procedures are not devel oped. Toxic chemicals are transported over decayed rail beds or on, winding, narrow roads in deteriorated trucks. In

this way, all of the dangers are compounded.” Damage: In the wake of the Bhopal tragedy— especially if the $15-billion lawsuit is even partly successful —multinationals and the developing countries that invite them in may be forced to make changes in industrial and environmental safety. In Europe a chemical plant explosion in Seveso, Italy, in 1976 which released dioxin gas into residential areas (without loss of life) forced such changes.

Currently, the European Community’s so-called “Seveso Directive” provides ! strict regulations for the production, | handling and transporting of 180 dangerous substances and, for the first 1 time, makes industries responsible for damage outside national borders.

Horrors: In India there are signs of similar changes. For one thing, Gandhi, after his tour of Bhopal last week, vowed : that no new production facilities for dangerous materials would be allowed j in densely populated areas. For another, ; Passey of the Trade Union Congress

noted that current safety laws are hopelessly out of date, leaving the safety procedures that must accompany new technologies up to multinationals and their Indian subsidiaries. How soon India—and other developing nations —will make those changes remains uncertain. Still, Leonard of the Conservation Foundation says that the graphic horrors of Bhopal might goad governments into making them. Said Leonard: “It takes disasters like this one in India to move people into action.”

In Bhopal at week’s end, although many of the city’s shops had reopened, life was in chaos. More victims continued to die, tailors continued sewing shrouds, and hundreds of animal carcasses remained to be moved. And the blind still stumbled through the littered streets, searching for relatives and trying to comprehend the horror that engulfed their stricken city.

With Anjoy Bhose in New Delhi, Dave

Silburt in Toronto, David North in Lon-

don, Peter Lewis in Brussels and Wil-

liam Lowther in Washington.