Bhopal’s never ending disaster
Richard Ansell and Andrew Tinsley revisit the gas tragedy, 27 years after the explosion at the Union Carbide plant in India became the world’s worst industrial disaster
Bhopal is a city of 1.5 million people situated in the heart of India, halfway between Delhi and Mumbai (see video below), and is the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. It is also the location of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
The Bhopal tragedy of 1984 has killed thousands of people and continues to affect many thousands more. Protracted, complex international litigation between India and the US has contributed to the fact that, more than 26 years later, the site has still not been remediated. There is now a significant, growing body of evidence demonstrating that this is causing substantial harm to the local population through toxic contamination of the land and the local groundwater.
The Union Carbide India plant at Bhopal was built in 1969. It was 50.9% owned by the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), with the rest owned by a range of Indian financial institutions and private investors.
As the majority shareholder, UCC had ultimate control over the design, maintenance and operation of the plant, which was to produce a number of pesticides with the brand names Temic, Sevidol and Sevin. It was based on the design of a UCC plant in the US, but included untested technological elements, such as the management of acid waste residues.
One of the key process chemicals required to produce Sevin was methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly reactive, toxic and potentially explosive gas. It was mixed with alpha naphthol to produce the active ingredient for both Sevin and Sevidol – 1-naphthyl-N-methylcarbamate, more simply known as carbaryl.
The original Bhopal plant produced Sevin using imported MIC but, in 1979, it was extended in order to manufacture MIC locally. Union Carbide state that the plant producing the carbaryl was closed in 1982, before the disaster.
Bhopal’s first disaster …
On the night of 2 December 1984, a large amount of water entered tank 610 containing approximately 40 tonnes of MIC. When MIC is mixed with water it undergoes a rapid exothermic reaction. This caused an explosion that ruptured the containment system and released a deadly gas cloud over the city. MIC is a highly toxic substance, 500 times more poisonous than cyanide, and reportedly five times more noxious than the phosgene gas used in World War I.
The Indian Council of Medical Research estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 people died that night, and by 1994 more than 25,000 people had died as a result of exposure. It also estimates a further 500,000 people were affected by the gas, and about 150,000 people still suffer chronic effects from exposure.
Union Carbide has always claimed that the release of MIC was the direct result of sabotage by an unnamed, disgruntled worker who deliberately introduced water into the tank. Union Carbide’s Bhopal information page states: “An independent investigation by the engineering consulting firm Arthur D Little determined that the water could only have been deliberately introduced into the tank, since safety systems were in place and operational that would have prevented water from entering the tank by accident.”
Independent observers, victims, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation and former site workers, however, blame safety cutbacks and management failures for the disaster that ultimately allowed wash water to enter the tank through faulty pipework and isolation valves. In the months leading up to the gas disaster there were various failures of equipment, and, it is claimed, workers were sent to work at the MIC plant with inadequate training.
A 1994 book – Bhopal: The inside story – by a former Union Carbide worker and MIC plant operative, T R Chouhan, reveals how warnings from safety audits were ignored. It states the lack of training of site personnel, reduced maintenance regimes and poor management practices ultimately led to the disaster.
More importantly, it details technical facts, explaining that had there been capacity in the spare tanks, and had the refrigeration systems for the MIC tank, the alarms, the flare tower and the vent scrubber been functioning properly then the potential gas release would have been found, substantially reduced and remediated at source.
In 1989, the Indian Supreme Court approved a sum of $470 million in full and final settlement of all claims and criminal proceedings to the disaster. A legal petition to enhance compensation is due to be heard shortly, seeking additional damages of $60 million as, among other things, the original settlement underestimates victim numbers.
Union Carbide, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemicals in 2001, has chosen not to provide comment for this article, but it does provide a list of frequently asked questions and related documents on its website.
… and second
There is growing recognition of a separate tragedy that is driving a new wave of international interest in the Bhopal site. When the design of the plant was drawn up in the 1960s, the lack of a river for disposal of plant effluent posed a potential design problem for UCC. Two designs were possible: incineration of the acid hydrocarbon and plant residues or neutralisation with lime, evaporation and subsequent landfilling of sludge. UCC chose the second option.
Initially, the sludge was disposed of in unlined pits. Later, solar evaporation ponds (SEPs) were constructed, away from the main site. The ponds were insufficiently lined and the liners were reported to have been breached within four years of operation, partly due to the native “black cotton soil” being used in their construction, which – like many soils in monsoonal areas – expands significantly when wet and contracts and cracks when dry.
Suspicions that discharges from the plant could be poisoning the local groundwater were raised as early as 1980, well before the 1984 tragedy, when there were reports of cattle dying. In a UCC internal telex, dated 25 March 1982, it was reported that the SEPs had “almost emptied” through lining leakage.
Groundwater contamination was first substantiated in 1990 by tests carried out by the Citizens Environmental Laboratory in Boston. In 1999, a Greenpeace report analysed soil/waste samples from seven locations and water from 12 locations in and near the factory. It identified 12 carcinogenic and toxic volatile organic compounds, many in concentrations far exceeding standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, in the water supply for an estimated 30,000 people in the Bhopal area.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India performed further tests on groundwater and soil in and around the plant in 2009. The results clearly show the land within the factory site and around the SEPs is highly contaminated with pesticides, chlorinated benzenes and heavy metals.
“It is not a case of ‘acute toxicity’, but of ‘chronic toxicity’,” said CSE director, Sunita Narain. “The toxic wastes were dumped by the factory when it was functional between the late 1970s and 1984, and when it was shut after the gas leak. These have contaminated the [ground]water.”
The CSE also tested groundwater samples from various communities around the site and discovered the concentration of pesticides found in all water samples was between 1.1 to 59.3 times the only mandatory water standard in India, fixed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (IS 14543). The average concentration in all the groundwater samples tested, including those up to 3.5km from the factory site, was found to be 12 times the standard.
“It suggests the groundwater contamination is in fact much more widely spread than previous studies suggested. On that basis, the number of people being affected by this toxic supply must be massively in excess of the previous estimates of 30,000,” claimed Colin Toogood of the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
In 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that a safe water system be installed to the affected communities. Today, the water supply – mostly shipped in by tankers – is highly irregular and residents are still forced to resort to the contaminated supply.
The present day
Eight former employees at the MIC plant were convicted (one posthumously) in the Bhopal courts on criminal charges of “causing death by negligence” in June 2010. They received small fines, were jailed for two years, but have served no time in prison as they were immediately bailed.
In May 2011, a petition was heard, and dismissed, by the Indian Supreme Court. The petition had been filed by the Central Bureau of Investigations and aimed to overturn a controversial order from 1996 that had reduced the original criminal charges of culpable homicide, against the Indian officials of Union Carbide, and instituted the lesser charge of death caused by negligence. A second, revised petition to “enhance” the sentences is expected to be submitted shortly.
The Union Carbide Corporation (US) and its former chair Warren Anderson, who was infamously arrested and bailed in India in 1984, have failed to obey the summons of the Bhopal court and answer the more serious criminal charge of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”.
Anderson was recorded as “absconded” at the 2010 trial and the US refuses to assist with extradition, citing a lack of evidence. Indian environmental legislation introduced since the disaster now clearly places responsibility at the highest board levels as “occupiers” of a licensed chemical production site.
The Indian government has established a “group of ministers” (GoM) to examine all of the issues relating to the Bhopal disaster. Three Indian centres of technical expertise – the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the National Geophysical Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology – have submitted papers to the GoM proposing contamination assessment and remediation procedures. However, the data contained in the papers have been criticised, with the degree of independence of consultants and the proposed assessment and remediation procedures questioned.
All of the various groups involved, both governmental and non-governmental, have at least reached one agreed consensus: that all of the available data still fall short of a full site investigation and considerable extra work is required, particularly with regard to groundwater modelling.
There are currently no firm plans for a full site and groundwater contamination assessment.
The US courts have formally acknowledged that Union Carbide’s liability for present-day environmental pollution is separate and distinct from its liability for the 1984 disaster. In November 2001, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated all environmental claims “not related to the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster including claims for remediation and clean-up of the now abandoned former plant site in Bhopal and its solar evaporation ponds”.
The process of legal redress in the US is producing some interesting results, not least the reported discovery of a document containing details that Union Carbide’s scientists carried out bioassay of samples of groundwater in 1989, but were not able to get a fix on the LD50 values for groundwater contaminants (a standardised measure for expressing and comparing the toxicity of chemicals), as they found 100% fish mortality at all the dilutions they tried.
This, and the recent convictions in the Indian courts, have now reinvigorated legal claims both in India and the US against Union Carbide, and potentially its new owner Dow Chemicals, concerning compensation for victims affected by contaminated drinking water and seeking full remediation costs for the site.
Given past history, it is unlikely that any legal claim will be solved quickly, and legal claims alone will not solve site contamination problems.
There may yet be an alternative approach to achieving site remediation independently of the court actions. The Indian government is reported to have set aside funds of £50 million for remediation. However, the specific operational experience and the necessary waste management infrastructure to achieve this may currently be lacking in India.
An EU-backed full site investigation, supported by European consultancies undertaking desk studies, “double blind” sampling between Indian and European laboratories and eventual site clean-up works, could be the way forward, but will require high-level political support.
The ongoing legal cases still have the potential to redefine or remove the limits of international legal liabilities for companies operating sites overseas. There are many other legacies of contaminated industrial sites globally without the infamy of Bhopal.
Knowledge on environmental contamination and pesticide exposure effects is now being shared by Bhopalis in India and around the world. Bhopal may yet become a watchword in the field of sustainable development, not just for an industrial disaster.
Bhopal first hand
In April 2011, Andrew Tinsley travelled to Bhopal to see for himself what is happening there. Here is his personal account.
My facilitator, guide and interpreter, Sanjay Verma, is a Bhopal gas survivor. On the night of the disaster he was six months old. As the gas entered their house his sister and a brother wrapped him in blankets and took the only option available. Along with thousands of other people they ran. His parents and five other brothers and sisters were all killed.
My first visit is to the Blue Moon Colony, a bustee (shanty town) located between the solar evaporation ponds and landfill, and separated from the Union Carbide site only by the width of the railway. It is one of the areas worst affected by groundwater contamination. The landfill area is a raised, barren patch of grey earth. It is mid-afternoon and the temperature is now well into the 40°Cs.
There is a faint sweet chemical smell coming from the surface of the landfill dirt. The remains of the liner of the landfill can be seen tattered on the side of the slope – it is barely 1mm thick, decayed and inadequate for the task of containment.
The surface and sides of the landfill are open to the elements; there is evidence of gullying and erosion from monsoonal rains. More worryingly, there is evidence of recent excavation of the dried sludge from the landfill. I realise that some of what I had taken to be concrete in the walls of the bustee was probably the grey, lime-rich rammed “earth” from the landfill. It is clear from the smell and the lack of vegetation that the landfill area is heavily contaminated.
At the Union Carbide site I meet T R Chouhan, a former site worker and author on the Bhopal disaster. He shows me the abandoned labs – 26 years on, unused bottles of various acids, alkalis and organic solvent chemicals stacked messily beneath the benches and covered in cobwebs, testament to the problems of site clean-up. The lab windows are broken and there are no securable doors to the building. We move on to the sludge treatment area.
Chouhan explains that mercury was used as a liquid bearing in the sludge separation unit. The bearings frequently failed, spilling the mercury that can still be readily seen on the ground around the sludge separation columns. He indicates the wide area over which it is now believed to have spread.
We approach the rusting hulk of the methyl isocyanate (MIC) plant – a slightly surreal and unnerving experience. That by now familiar heavy chemical smell rises around the sludge plant and MIC plants as the ground heats up in the sun. It is similar to the smell at the landfill site, only much stronger.
Next to the MIC plant is tank 610 – in which the MIC had reacted with the introduced water. Chouhan explains that it was excavated from its concrete jacket after the disaster and found to be intact.
During the gas release, pipework around the base of the plant ruptured and the suppression sprays on the tower failed owing to a lack of maintenance and insufficient water pressure. The vent scrubber unit was inadequate as it was only designed for “normal” operations, not the 200 times the amount of MIC it was presented with. The escape of the gas was then inevitable.
Finally, we visit the control room. Many of the dials have now been stripped out, creating calls for parts of the plant to be preserved as a UNESCO Heritage site as a memorial. Beneath a control panel that is labelled for the suppression sprays is an apparently original sticker that can be seen in many industrial control rooms around the world. It simply reads: “Safety is everybody’s business”.