Thursday, December 2, 2004

20 years since Bhopal

In this season of disasters, both natural and man-made, it behooves us to remember the Bhopal tragedy in India which killed more than 20,000 and whose aftereffects continue to destroy the health of thousands. It was one of the worst ecological disasters in history, rivaling Chernobyl in Russia, and it could have been prevented.

Many of the youth of today and the future might not know about Bhopal because the tragedy is not likely going to make it to the textbooks. Does it not qualify as a historical entry like the 79 A.D. Mt. Vesuvius eruption that buried Pompeii? Will our own 1991 Ormoc mudslide that killed thousands in a blink of an eye make it to our error-ridden textbooks (which are a huge disaster in themselves)? And didn’t we see a likeness of Ormoc in the past few days? And not to forget the Marcopper disaster in Marinduque.

On the night of Dec. 2 and early morning of Dec. 3, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal began leaking some 27 tons of the methyl isocynate (MIC), a deadly gas. According to The Bhopal Medical Appeal and Sambhavna Trust that espouse the cause of victims, none of the six safety systems designed to contain that kind of a leak was operational and soon the gas to spread throughout the city.

An estimated half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have so far died as a result of this. More than 120,000 continue to suffer ailments such as blindness, breathing problems, and reproductive disorders.

The site has never been truly cleaned up and Bhopal residents continue to be poisoned, say environmental groups, Greenpeace among them. Greenpeace-Philippines is bringing up Bhopal to remind us all that there might be a deadly keg somewhere waiting to explode. Remember Chemphil a few months ago?

In 1999, Greenpeace reported that chemicals causing cancer, brain damage and brain defects were found in the water at the Bhopal accident site. These were in extremely high levels, that is, several million times higher. Trichloroethene, known to impair fetal development, was found at levels 50 times more than the accepted safe limits.

A 2002 testing report revealed that poisons such as 1, 3, 5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury were present in the breast milk of nursing women.

Michigan-based Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide and acquired its assets in 2001. Dow Chemical is said to have steadfastly refused to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water, compensate the victims or disclose the composition of the gas leak which doctors need to know in order to treat the victims. It’s supposed to be a ``trade secret.’’

Union Carbide sticks to the figure of 3,800 victims. But according to reports, ``municipal workers who picked up bodies with their own hands, loading them onto trucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. Such body counts become meaningless when you know that the dying has never stopped.’’

The Bhopal Union Carbide pesticide factory seemed problematic since the time it was built in the 1970s. India seemed, at first, a huge market for pest control products. It did not turn out that way. The poor farmers, who constantly battled with droughts and floods, could not afford the pesticides. The plant never reached its full capacity and ceased active production in the early 1980s.

As reports go, a great quantity of chemicals remained there even while the plant’s safety system was allowed to deteriorate. It seemed logical for management to think that since the plant had ceased production, there was no threat. They were wrong.

Here was how it started: ``Regular maintenance had fallen into such disrepair that on the night of Dec. 2, when an employee was flushing a corroded pipe, multiple stopcocks failed and allowed water to flow freely into the largest tack of MIC. Exposure to this water soon led to an uncontrolled reaction; the tank was blown out of its concrete sarcophagus and spewed a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methyl amine and other chemicals that hugged the ground. Blown by the prevailing winds, this cloud settle over much of Bhopal. Soon, thereafter, people began to die.’’

In 1989, five years after the disaster, Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian government, paid some $470 million compensation. The victims were not part of the negotiations and many felt cheated by the $300 to $500 each received. It could not cover many years’ of medical treatment. Those who were awarded aren’t necessarily better off now than those who were not.

About 50,000 Bhopalis who were injured could no longer return to work or move freely about. Those with relatives to care for them are lucky. Many have no one to look after them because their next of kin had all died.

The Bhopal local government has charged Union Carbide’s CEO Warren Anderson with manslaughter and if convicted, he could serve 10 years in prison. Warren evaded international arrest and a summons to appear before a US court.

In Aug. 2002, Greenpeace found Warren living a life of luxury in the Hamptons. Says a report: ``Neither the American nor the Indian government seem interested in disturbing him with an extradition, despite the recent scandals over corporate crime…The Union Carbide Corporation itself was charged with culpable homicide, a criminal charge whose penalty has no upper limit. These charges have never been resolved, as Union Carbide, like its former CEO, has refused to appear before an Indian court.’’