On This Day

Bhopal gas disaster, Bhopal tragedy, Bhopal accident
Sondeep Shankar/AP
Two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India, Dec. 5, 1984.

On This Day: Thousands Die in Bhopal Gas Disaster

December 03, 2010 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked tons of toxic gas into the air, killing thousands of residents in one of the worst-ever industrial disasters.

Bhopal Disaster Devastates City

Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, was home to a Union Carbide (UCC) pesticide plant that included a plant producing methyl isocyanate (MIC). On the night of Dec. 2, 1984, water accidentally flowed into an MIC storage tank, setting off a deadly chemical reaction.

At least six different safety systems were not operating or failed, allowing roughly 40 tons of toxic gas to be released into the air for about four hours. The gas first passed over the city’s slums near the plant, killing dozens in their sleep. Others woke up and rushed away from the plant as their eyes and lungs were burned by the gas. The wind blew the gas further into the city of 900,000, causing a mass panic.

“As word of the cloud of poison began to spread, hundreds, then thousands, took to the road in flight from the fumes,” wrote Time. “In cars and rickshaws, on foot and bicycles, residents moved as fast as they could. As in some eerie science-fiction nightmare, hundreds of people blinded by the gas groped vainly toward uncontaminated air or stumbled into one another in the darkness. Others simply collapsed by the side of the road in the crush.”
Bhopal resident Ahmed Khan described to the BBC, “We were choking and our eyes were burning. We could barely see the road through the fog, and sirens were blaring.” He added, “Mothers didn’t know their children had died, children didn’t know their mothers had died and men didn’t know their whole families had died.”

The gas was brought under control at approximately 4:00 a.m. Death estimates vary, though most say that roughly 3,000 people died within a day and 8,000 within a week. Thousands more suffered horrible injuries and illnesses, including blindness, kidney and liver failure, neurological disorders, respiratory problems and miscarriages.

The gas has affected a second generation of Bhopal residents, as birth defects there are still common. The plant was abandoned after the disaster, but it has not been adequately cleaned and chemicals continue to seep into groundwater.

Debating the Responsibility for the Disaster

“The Bhopal disaster was the result of a combination of legal, technological, organizational, and human errors,” writes American University’s Trade & Environment Database.

Union Carbide had been losing money in the years leading up to 1984 and had begun to cut back on safety and infrastructural improvements in the Bhopal plant. Important structures were shut down for long periods and workers often ignored routine procedures that were considered too expensive or time-consuming.

The disaster began when water intended to clean out pipes in the main plant flowed into the storage tank in the MIC plant, causing a chemical reaction. Gauges warning workers that there was too much pressure in the tank were ignored because they were unreliable. Three different systems designed to neutralize the effects of the accident—a cooling tank, gas scrubber and flare tower—had been shut down for maintenance. A water spray designed to spray the escaping gas had been installed too low to reach the gas.

UCC CEO Warren Anderson and several other executives flew to India soon after the disaster and were arrested. Anderson was released on bail and flown out of the country; he has yet to return to India. He still faces charges of culpable homicide and extradition attempts have failed.

The Indian government sued Union Carbide on behalf of the Bhopal victims for $350 billion. In 1989, it reached a settlement with UCC for $470 million. Much of that money, however, was not distributed by the government until 2004 and even then the compensation was not enough for most.

The UCC plant has been abandoned, but is yet to be properly cleaned. “To this day you can see piles of dangerous chemicals lying in the open air. The warehouses are full of sacks of poisons, many of which have split open. Children and animals have been in and left footprints in the chemical dust. The structures and buildings on the site have been left to rot,” writes The Bhopal Medical Appeal.

The Indian government announced in June 2010 that it would spend $276 million to clean the site. It also pledged to seek payment from Dow Chemical, which purchased UCC in 2001. UCC has contended that all claims arising from the incident were resolved in the 1989 settlement, and Dow declares that, having “never owned or operated the plant,” it bears no responsibility.

Also in June 2010, an Indian court handed out the first criminal convictions related to the disaster, convicting eight Indian plant employees (one deceased) of “death by negligence” and sentencing them to at least two years on prison. Anderson was declared an absconder; Indian politicians have pledged to pursue his extradition from the U.S.

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