INSIGHT: Learning from Bhopal

03 December 2009 13:17  [Source: ICIS news]

By Malini Hariharan

Signs on the streets of Bhopal prior to the 25th anniversary of the gas disasterMUMBAI (ICIS news)--Twenty-five years after Bhopal, India’s biggest industrial disaster, opinion remains divided over whether lessons from the tragedy have been learned.

It was on the night of 2-3 December 1984 that a gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant at Bhopal killed an estimated 7,000 people. Thousands more were affected, and some are still suffering, as a result of exposure to toxic methyl iscocyanate.

It was a harsh reminder to the industry of the dangers of the chemical processes and products it deals with on a daily basis.

The industry did respond quickly to ensure that another Bhopal does not take place. Not only was the Responsible Care movement born after the tragedy, but laws and regulations were introduced by governments worldwide to ensure that adequate attention was paid to safety.

After so many years, Bhopal may now be a distant memory. But HS Karangale, director general of the Indian Chemical Council (ICC), stresses that Indian companies are conscious of the necessity to take precautions.

 “The Indian chemical industry has taken care, it has learnt a lesson. Bhopal can happen only if safety is not taken care of,” he says.

And efforts to make operations safer are continuing, with the ICC setting up a new process-safety centre this year aimed at training plant operators.

The big companies have focused on safety, health and environment (SHE) practices, but there is still a problem with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), says SK Hazra, managing director of Aegis Logistics and chairman of ICC’s SHE expert committee.

This has, perhaps, reinforced public perceptions that the industry has done enough.

Rachna Dhingra, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), however, insists that lessons have not been learned.

“It is just that corporations have become smarter in using public relations. It is a big hoax; they are lobbying government officials to push their agenda,” she says.

“Claims [by companies] have to be questioned. Why are toxic chemicals being made? We see explosions and leaks happening all over the world,” she adds, citing the explosion at a Bayer CropSciences’ plant in Charleston, West Virginia, US, last year, which killed two people. The blast was also dangerously close to an methyl iscocyanate storage tank.

The US Chemical Safety Board said after an investigation that a series of process-safety management deficiencies had caused the accident. Bayer subsequently decided to cut methyl isocyanate inventory at the site by 80%. 

The lessons from Bhopal cannot be forgotten. 

ICJB has been fighting a long battle with the Indian government and Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001. It wants the government to hold Dow legally responsible for killing people and causing environmental damage. It would like the government to appoint a committee that will handle the long-term rehabilitation of the affected people of Bhopal.

ICBJ also wants a solution to another major problem – cleaning up the Union Carbide plant site at Bhopal.

Dhingra says that 350 tonnes of semi-processed pesticides are still at the site. In addition to this, there are 21 dump spots outside the plant. This has resulted in groundwater contamination and affected the health of people living in the vicinity.

Based on the “polluter pays principle”, the ICBJ would like Dow to take responsibility. However, Union Carbide had in the past spent $2m to clean up the site and handed it over to the state government. The matter is currently being heard in a local court.

And Dow has repeatedly stated that it has no liabilities, as it has never owned or operated the Bhopal site.

This response has failed to satisfy activists, who have been regularly blocking Dow’s efforts to expand its presence in India. Last year, protestors set fire to Dow’s research centre, which is under construction at Pune.

“Opposing an R&D centre is not correct; it’s unfortunate,” says Karangale.

But with the Bhopal issue yet to be fully resolved and activists keeping the memory alive, Dow’s problems in India are unlikely to fade quickly.

There are other areas where Bhopal has had an impact.

“Companies are reluctant to pursue phosgene chemistry after Bhopal,” according to a source from an Indian chemical company. “India has very few players in this area, while China has many. 'Why take on the headache?' is a common feeling.”

Added to this is the fear of taking on NGOs.

Overall, the industry may have learned crucial lessons from the Bhopal tragedy. But 25 years on, it looks like some scars will always remain.

See John Richardson’s Asian Chemical Connections Blog
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By: Malini Hariharan
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