Good Energy

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Sunday, 11 April 2010

Not Long Enough to Drink the Water

The Union Carbide plant isn’t hard to find, everyone in Bhopal I ask for direction knows where it is. From the entrance it could be the entrance to a rundown city park. Four police officers lounge by the gate and explain that without a permit I can’t enter. Ten minutes later I’ve put 200Rs in an officer’s hand (at his suggestion), he’s pulled on a shirt and he’s doctoring the date on an old permit as we walk into the restricted area.

We pass functional low rise office blocks now abandoned with broken windows and a film of grey city dirt engrained in the plaster. Then, above the thin tree growth I can see the rusting scaffold of a chemical plant being reclaimed by nature, slowly strangled by lianas, trees and bushels.

When arriving in the city I’d half expected there to be an operating plant on the site, with a visitors centre and a PR department extolling the virtues of how safe the plant is now, and how the cleanup has been a big success. A sign of how I misjudged the scale of what happened here in 1984 and the anger that still exists at the injustice that persists. It’s well documented but it’s worth repeating the details lest they get forgotten.

Due to lazy maintenance, and miserly cost cutting, the plant erupted, as a series of easily avoidable equipment failures compounded to release enormous volumes of the active ingredient used in the pesticides that were being made there. The people of Bhopal were “treated” like a plague of locusts.

Union Carbide shirked full responsibility and the court cases continue to this day in the US and in India 25 years later. UC was sold to Dow Chemicals who have denied ongoing liability. Some compensation has been paid but nothing compared to the medical or socio-economic damage the accident caused.

As an engineer I felt it was important to see the mechanics of how the accident happened. The refinery was ravaged by fire and now a quarter of a century later the metal work is rusting and starting to collapse in places. There's little evidence left to how it all started.

The 3 tanks that contained the toxic gas that was emitted each sit not far from where they exploded. The first calmly rests on the ground 20 metres away from its original placement, it’s exposed flanges of shinny stainless steel are unaffected by the fire or the passage of time. The second tank has been housed in a makeshift hanger; presumably to avoid exposing it to rain that might washout the final traces of toxic sludge. The hanger doesn’t look as if it’s seen any maintenance since the clean up in 1985. It’s sagging and cracked.

The final tank was deemed to contain such a volume and concentration of toxins that it was decided that rather than transport it away or chemically treat it in place, the safest option was to bury it next to the hanger in a concrete coffin.

However after 25 monsoons, the poison from the disaster has still not been washed away, and in fact the moving earth caused by the rains around the concrete bunker is giving life to the deadly poison again. The concrete casing is clearly falling apart above the surface, and any civil engineer will tell you the same thing is likely to be happening below it. Forces strong enough to break concrete can bend, fold and crack the steel tank encased in it. In the rainy season, water will leach through the cracks washing the poison down into the water table 200m below.

Less than 100m away from where the 3 tanks sit, is a shanty town butting up against the 2 metre walls of the abandoned complex. The land slopes, and the water table runs, in the direction of the shanty, and the inhabitants have few options but to drink the water from ground wells.

Its little surprise then that even today the Sambhavna clinic, run exclusively for patients with ailments relating to disaster, and funded by charitable donations from the UK and US, still sees 150 patients a day, and have over 24,000 registered. Respiratory problems, caused by the release of the gas now rival eye, skin, liver and kidney damage caused by the affected water supply. The clinic also deals with, diabetes, cancer and children born with birth defects, all of which are at a much higher incidence in Bhopal than elsewhere in India.

The local government now delivers water from outside the affected area to bauwsers on the streets, but they aren’t replenished rapidly enough. Inhabitants jockey to fill cans as soon as the water trucks have passed, but are also forced to resort to the ground water pumps that should have been shut off.

In a city of 1 million, over half have had compensation claims accepted. The amount paid out is trifling compared to the impact. Victims have received between US$500 to €2000 for the most severely affected. A figure described as “Plenty good for an Indian” by a US executive of the company.

Goats, cows and wild boar graze on the site, and kids step through the cracked brick wall to play cricket in the clearings. The government say the site is clean and want to open it as a tourist attraction.

But there's no independent monitoring of the cleanup operation conducted by the Indian government with a one time payment made by UC and seemingly no maintenance of the cleanup. A report in December '09 by the Indian Centre for Science and Environment’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory found 38 times the normal level of pesticide in the ground water 3km away from the plant. In the site itself they found pesticide concentrations in the soil is 9,866ppm. That means 1% of the chemical composition of the soil is pesticide.

Activists from the Bhopal Group for Information and Actions (BGIA) are in Delhi this week to lobby the government to stand by its commitment made in 2008 to set up the Empower Commission, to be run by an established victims group. The Commission is due to manage a budget of US$400m over 30 years. All six relevant government departments have agreed the plan, the only stumbling block is the local Madhya Pradesh government who see an opportunity in distributing the funds and want to manage it themselves, but, say the BGIA, have shown little in the way of track record of supporting the victims over the last 25 years.

In amongst all this wrangling to spend government money it’s easy to get distracted from the fact this was an accident caused by negligence, with massive consequences. As individuals, it’s too easy to be negligent, and most of the time it causes little or no repercussions, but as a corporation Union Carbide, now Dow, had an obligation to put systems in place to forcibly prevent negligence. More than reminding employees to keep on their toes, they should have had a management system and technical systems that made negligence impossible. The courts are deciding if they did enough in this respect.

Corporations working in the developing world are doing so because it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper because space and resources are cheaper, but the big saving is workforce and freer operating legislation. That’s MBA double-speak for lower skilled people working in less safe environments. Union Carbides' defence against negligence was that the Indian government didn't have sufficient safety standards. Standards which would have made it more expensive to opperate the plant. The lack of standards made the need for UC to negligence-proof thier opperation all the more important.

Dow, as with any quoted corporation, has a "responsibility to its shareholders". All those hardworking middle class savers and investors around the world, who knowingly or not have put their money and financial expectations in the portfolios and funds that contain Dow stock. Even if Dow were to put their hands up and pay out, (which ethically there is no doubt they should), it's the shareholders and not those who made the decisions that led to the negligence who'll be stumping up the corn.

Warren Anderson the American CEO of UC legged it to the US skipping $2000 bial, and has fought extradition to India ever since. After Enron and Madoff, the anger of America’s middle class 501 losers has encouraged the judiciary there to convict senior management to long prison terms for company crimes that they actively orchestrated. Corporate negligence is different from corporate corruption but the climate now exists to apportion blame the top management. Perhaps the fact the Bhopal trial has run so long, into this era where CEOs can't shirk their corporate responsibilities, will mean due punishment will be dispensed in the US to Warren Anderson, and the management team who allowed this negligence to take place. Or perhaps it will procrastinate further beyond the lifetimes of the survivors and the perpetrators.


  1. Thanks for your update on this, Andy. It was a terrible disaster and it's just disgusting that nothing continues to be done and additional people are suffering 25 years later -- and will continue to suffer since nothing obviously will be done to properly clean the environment around the plant.

  2. Here's an bit of political activism that shows how Dow could make amends;

  3. Check out the photos in the Gallery too: Its an eerie place.


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