Bhopal continues to haunt us

06 December 2004 00:01  [Source: ICB]

Bhopal. The very name still haunts all of us in the chemical industry. What happened in the early hours of 3 December 1984 and its continuing legacy is an unresolved blot on the industry’s reputation.

Shortly after midnight, between 27 and 30 tonne of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from a storage tank at Union Carbide India’s pesticides facility in Bhopal. Some 200 000 inhabitants were affected with respiratory and eye problems; 50 000 were injured and thousands died.

The exact death toll will never be known – but it is certain at least 2800 died within hours and days – Union Carbide itself puts the number at 3800 – and many have succumbed in the intervening years from chronic conditions.

The incident itself is appalling for its loss of life – irrespective of whether it occurred through accident, negligence or sabotage. But the aftermath – Union Carbide’s flawed reaction, the confused theories and investigations, and the $470m settlement made by the Indian government in 1989 – compounds the injury and keeps the wounds open.

Even today, the site has not been cleaned up or remediated. Stocks of old chemicals lie around and groundwater pollution still occurs.

Bhopal shocked the industry into action. Within four months of the tragedy, US chemical firms launched a major safety programme via the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association, designated Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER). This grew after 1998 into the international Responsible Care programme.

Legislation followed in the US and Europe, where it built on lessons already learned from major, but lesser incidents at Flixborough in the UK (1974) and Seveso in Italy (1976). But major explosions at Phillips’ polyethylene facility in Pasadena, Texas (1989), and the recent blast at Grand Paroisse’s Toulouse fertiliser facility in France show that incidents can and still do happen.

And even with today’s expertise in hazard assessment and incident investigation, it is still possible, as with Toulouse, that the causes of such incidents remain elusive.

Is it possible to lay the spectre of Bhopal to rest, to achieve some sort of closure? Union Carbide arrogantly believed it had drawn a line under the tragedy by paying compensation, funding a hospital in Bhopal and selling its majority stake in Union Carbide India in 1994.

Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, certainly believes it inherits no responsibility for Bhopal. In a statement it says: ‘We, with the rest of industry, have learned from this tragic event and have tried to do all we can to assure that similar incidents never happen again.’

Immediately after the event the overriding concerns should have been the welfare and just compensation of the inhabitants of Bhopal and the clean up of the site. Neither has been achieved and, 20 years on, neither looks likely.

Disaster upon disaster indeed.

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