Dec 8, 2014
In December 1984, a deadly leak spewed out of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. The toxic cloud spread through a nearby neighborhood, killing thousands immediately. A half million people faced contamination, some shouting through the streets of Bhopal that “Union Carbide kills.”
Union Carbide had built the plant four years earlier to produce the poisonous insecticide Sevin. The company expected to find a huge market for its product in India.
Three enormous tanks held the materials used in the production of Sevin. One of the most dangerous chemicals used was methyl isocyanate. Moisture may have caused the deadly chemical reaction in the tanks that led to an uncontrollable reaction. Phosgene is another chemical used in the production of Sevin. It is a gas that was employed in the deadly trench warfare of World War I. To put such deadly substances in the middle of a city of a million, close to three neighborhoods crammed up against the plant fences, placed them at terrible risk.
The plant had seen fatal accidents that showed the population how dangerous the substances were in Union Carbide’s tanks. Union militants there had begun to alert the population to the dangers. These militants who worked at the plant were laid off. The plant bosses even burned down a tent that the union had built there.
The engineers of Union Carbide worked out three kinds of security for the dangerous substances at the Bhopal plant. First was refrigeration to 32 degrees, a temperature at which the methyl isocyanate supposedly would not react. The tanks were also surrounded by a tower more than 100 feet high, filled with caustic soda, which was supposed to neutralize any escaping gases. Finally there was a flaming torch to burn off escaping gas. Everything was foreseen – except the law of profit.
The Indian market turned out to be much less profitable than the company expected. Union Carbide began cutting costs, laying off workers. Employment dropped from 1000 to 650, cutting a group of workers who really knew the ropes at the plant. Needed equipment did not get replaced, or was replaced less often than necessary. At the moment of the gas leak, Union Carbide had plans to close the plant and move production to Venezuela or Indonesia. While production of Sevin had stopped, the tanks still contained 50 tons of methyl isocyanate.
On the evening of December 2, 1984, water punctured one of the tanks holding methyl isocyanate, which was no longer being cooled, no longer protected by a tower of soda or a burning torch, and was at high pressure – so geysers of toxic gas erupted into the air in Bhopal. Within hours, thousands of people died in atrocious suffering. It would have been worse if not for the bravery of doctors, nursing students, and residents who risked their lives carrying those poisoned to tents around the central hospital where workers did what they could despite the fact that Union Carbide had provided neither information on the chemicals nor antidotes.
After the explosion, Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide, arrived in Bhopal. He had to be protected by police from the hatred of the population, despite promises that victims would receive compensation. But what was offered was a ridiculously small amount of money, not only for the families of those who lost their lives but for the thousands who remained invalids, poisoned by the chemicals, facing cancers and tuberculosis.
Despite any promises made, Union Carbide entered into a long legal battle, intending to prove it was the victim of deliberate sabotage.
It was five more years before Union Carbide and the Indian government worked out a deal to drop the legal proceedings and pay 470 million dollars – much of which went into the pockets of Indian politicians. And the amount was considerably less than Union Carbide would have paid had the victims been at a plant in the U.S. Union Carbide bragged that the Bhopal accident only “cost the shareholders 43 cents apiece.”
Warren Anderson died at age 92. He certainly never faced the charge of involuntary manslaughter in front of the Indian judicial system, despite outstanding international warrants for his arrest. Union Carbide became part of Dow Chemical, going forward with no further responsibility for the Bhopal disaster.
Thirty years later, people in Bhopal continue to die from consequences of this tragedy; the Bhopal area sees seven times more birth defects in babies born there than in the rest of India.
It’s not just Union Carbide that kills. Capitalism kills. It’s a system in which human life is always worth less than corporate profit.