Should we move beyond Bhopal?

Beware of Fatal Accidents

Lives of thousands of workers and citizens in danger because of poisonous gas. Spurt of accidents in the factory, safey measures deficient.

This was the text [translated from Hindi] of a poster put up by Workers Union of the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal in October 1982, 2 years before the gruesome Bhopal Gas tragedy of Decemeber 1984.

Why such a warning was given by the workers?

A series of accidents were happening in Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
In December 1981 a phosgene leak injured three workers; one of the workers died the next day. Two weeks later in January 1982, 24 workers were overcome by another phosgene leak. In February 1982 an MIC leak affected 18 people. In August 1982 a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC resulting in burns over 30% of his body. And in October 1982 a combined MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform leak injured three workers in the plant and affected a number of residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Since 1976 the two unions representing Bhopal workers had frequently complained to Union Carbide management and the Madhya Pradesh authorities, including the Factory Inspectorate, about safety and health hazards in the plant.

In an April 13, 1982, letter to the Minister of Labour of Madhya Pradesh, the Union wrote:

Our unit is going to celebrate the safety week from the 14th of April, 1982. But the workers would like to inform you that this function is merely a window-display… we would also like point out that our unit is manufacturing dangerous chemicals like phosgene , carbon monoxide, methyl iscocyanate, BHC, naphtha and temik.

How effective was the safety systems in Bhopal factory at the time of the disaster?
The Bhopal plant had four major safety systems designed to prevent or neutralize an uncontrolled MIC reaction:

(1) A 30 ton refrigeration unit to cool stored MIC, in order to prevent it from vaporizing or reacting;
The 30 ton refrigeration unit had been shut down since June 1984. There were no mechanical problems with the system; it was taken out of service to save money. The Freon refrigerant had been drained out for use elsewhere in the plant . The shutdown was in violation of established operating procedures

(2) A vent gas scrubber (VGS) to neutralize toxic gases with caustic soda in the event of a release;
The vent gas scrubber (VGS) was turned off in October, 1984, apparently because someone thought it was not necessary when MIC was only being stored and not produced. In addition, the caustic flow indicator was malfunctioning, so it would have been difficult to verify whether the unit was operating or not

(3) A flare tower to burn vented gases from the MIC storage tanks and other equipment; and
The flare had also been out of service since mid-October. A section of corroded pipe leading to it had been removed even though replacement pipe was not ready.the company had compromised the reliability of the flare tower even before it was disconnected. The tower was originally built with a backup set to fuel gas cylinders to ensure that the pilot light stayed on. However, the backup system was discontinued to save money.

(4) A water spray system to knock down escaping vapors.
The water spray system which was activated the night of the accident did not reach the level of the gas release, and was therefore useless. In 1982, Union Carbide Corporation, after inspecting the Bhopal facility, had recommended a new, larger water spray system, but it was never installed.

At the time of the accident  three of these systems were not operating. Only the water spray worked though ineffectively.

 Under staffed to cut Costs
At the time of the accident, the Bhopal plant, including the MIC facility, was operating with reduced manpower.  The plant had been losing money, and in 1983 and 1984 there were more personnel reductions in order to cut costs. Some worker were laid off and 150 permanent worker were pooled and assigned to jobs as needed. The employees were often assigned to jobs they were not qualified to do.
In the MIC facility the production crew had been cut from 12 (11 operators, 1 supervisor) to 6 (5 operators.1 supervisor), and the maintenance crew reduced from 6 to 2. According to the workers, the maintenance supervisor position on the second and third shifts had been cut on November 26, less than a week before accident. With reference to maintenance work and giving instructions for the job, the workers indicated that it would have been the responsibility of the maintenance supervisor to prepare the pipe which was being flushed with water the night of December 2, 1984, including to prevent the entry of water into the pipes leading to tank 610.Entry of water used for flushing of pipes into MIC storage tank 610 was the primary reason for the tragedy.

Why Bhopal disaster?

The Bhopal disaster was caused by a combination of factors, including the long term storage of MIC in the plant, the potentially undersized vent gas scrubber, the shutdown of the MIC refrigeration units, the use of the backup tank to store contaminated MIC, the company’s failure to repair the flare tower, leaking valves, broken gauges, and cuts in manning levels, crew sizes, workers training, and skilled supervision. The accident might have been prevented if UCC had done more to follow up its 1982 safety inspection, or of UCIL or the government had heeded the complaints of unions representing Bhopal workers. The effects of the accident were exacerbated by the company’s failure to provide adequate information to its subsidiary, authorities and community residents, the siting of the plant close to residential areas, and UCIL’S lack of disaster planning.

Many especially in the Corporate World and Government feel that it is time to move beyond Bhopal. But can we really move beyond the World’s worst Industrial tragedy?

The chilling statistics of a continuing tragedy [from]

More than 8,000 people killed due to exposure to the lethal gasses in the immediate aftermath of the disaster

 More than 500,000 people exposed to the poison gasses left to suffer a lifetime of ill health and mental trauma
The death toll has since risen to more than 20,000 people
 Nearly 30 people continue to die from exposure-related illnesses every month
At least 1,50,000 people, including children born to gas-exposed parents, suffer debilitating exposure-related health effects

Tons of poisonous pesticides and other hazardous wastes lying scattered and abandoned in the DOW-Carbide factory premises, insidiously poisoning the ground water and contaminating the land

A meagre life time compensation of 25000 Rs awarded to survivors and many still to get it 25 years after the tragedy.

 The specific items which caused the tragedy and the specific way they came together on the night of December 2, 1984, were unique. But the underlying causes are not unique:

Corporate greed,undercutting on safety to cut losses or increase profit,lack of Government monitoring of safety requirements, lack of  disaster management plans etc etc are not unique to Bhopal. It is there everywhere in present day India.

India has not learnt much from Bhopal. Our environmental and occupational safety regulations are still very lax. Corporates rule our Parliament,media and Governments.  Our Legal system is far behind in punishing Corporate crimes and ensuring accountability.We lag very much in our ability to cope with such grave emergencies.We are still very pathetic in rehabilitating the victims of such disaster

Unless better  regulations are written and strictly monitored by management  as well as by local. regional, and national Governments, the next Industrial disaster or a similar crime due to Corporate greed is just around the corner.

Industrial Development should promote human survival,not death.

Sources and links
the guardian


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