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Bhopal, India

In the middle of the night of December 2-3, 1984, residents living near the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India awoke coughing, choking, gasping, and in the case of thousands, slowly dying. Half a day later, half a world away, company executives sleeping soundly near the Danbury, CT headquarters of Union Carbide Corporation awoke in the middle of the night yawning and grumbling at the sound of telephones ringing… shortcuts taken in the name of profit — authorized by the highest executives within the company — had just killed thousands of innocent citizens. It was the worst industrial disaster of the 20th century, forever changing the public’s trust of the chemical industry. Union Carbide claimed it was sabotage by a disgruntled employee that led to the disaster, but how much did the company already know about the dangerous conditions its shortcuts and bottom-line focus had created?

Documents recently uncovered in litigation [Bano et al v. Union Carbide Corp & Warren Anderson, 99cv11329 SDNY, filed 11/15/99] and obtained by EWG demonstrate that Union Carbide cut corners and employed untested technologies when building the Bhopal plant. [excerpt | full document] The company had forged ahead with the unproven design, knowing that it posed a “danger of polluting subsurface water supplies in the Bhopal area” according to a Carbide document marked "Destroy after use." [excerpt | full document] Shaving costs and maximizing profits took precedence over ensuring the safety of plant workers and the surrounding communities.

Ironically, Union Carbide boasted of its “technical knowledge” and “vast scientific resources” in a 1962 magazine advertisement about their newly constructed Bhopal plant. Telling of “the promise of a bright future” for India’s people due to the construction of the Bhopal plant, the ad concludes with Carbide’s sad-but-true slogan at the time: “A Hand In Things To Come.”

Union Carbide’s former CEO, Warren Anderson, faces charges of culpable homicide in connection with the disaster, for which India has sought his extradition. He is considered a fugitive from justice for his refusal to return to India to face the charges. Anderson currently is enjoying a comfortable retirement splitting time between Long Island and Florida, playing golf and staying out of the limelight. To date, the U.S. government has done nothing to facilitate Anderson’s extradition. If found guilty, he faces 10 years in prison and a fine. Citing trade secrets, Union Carbide has never disclosed the makeup of the gas that killed thousands.

In the days following the disaster, Anderson and a team of Carbide scientists were dispatched to Bhopal to assess the situation and attempt to appease the angry public. Upon arrival, Anderson was immediately detained by Indian authorities, the precursor to later charges of culpable homicide. So the company scientists proceeded without him. Minutes from a January 3, 1985 CMA special meeting to discuss the impacts of Bhopal reported: “…the physicians sent to Bhopal after the accident are saying that the immediate physical problems for most of the survivors will probably disappear. Union Carbide is awaiting a report by a team of company scientists sent to conduct an investigation.” [excerpt | full document]

The Carbide scientists’ optimism was not borne out in reality. Tens of thousands of survivors claim ongoing health impacts from the gas, and relief is nowhere in sight. Average compensation paid to victims from a settlement fund amounted to a mere $550 each, insufficient to cover even basic health care needs for survivors.

“Minimize Adverse Legislation” [excerpt | full document]

Following the Bhopal disaster, the chemical industry began to take its public image more seriously and started to organize its defenses, including the unveiling of the Responsible Care initiative, essentially a facade erected to avoid regulation by claiming that the industry is taking voluntary measures to improve its safety and security. With the advent of Responsible Care and other PR efforts following the Bhopal tragedy, the industry hoped to “work on reassuring the public” that accidents like Bhopal would not happen again. [excerpt | full document]

Minutes from a January 1985 meeting of the CMA Board of Directors reveal the urgency with which the industry hoped to proactively respond to Bhopal:

“Bhopal Incident: Industry Action Plan

Chairman Holmer reviewed the actions the Officers had taken since the Bhopal incident and expressed their collective belief that the industry needed to take positive actions very quickly in response to the issues and concerns which had been raised.” [excerpt | full document]

The action plan included the development of the Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) program, as well as the establishment of a National Chemical Information Center.

Despite the development of the so-called “Bhopal response program” at CMA, the industry still felt vulnerable. Companies feared a wave of legislation would follow in the wake of Bhopal, some of which they expected to address the issue of using untested U.S. technologies in overseas facilities:

“The Bhopal incident will likely trigger a new U.S. policy addressing the export of hazardous substances. Also expected is legislation limiting use of U.S. technology abroad that cannot be used safely.” [excerpt | full document]

“The adequacy of state and local emergency response plans will become a major issue nationwide in light of the Bhopal incident.” [excerpt | full document]

In response to the possibility of tougher regulations, the industry prepared to fight:

“Since Bhopal, national print media have devoted heavy and continuing coverage to a broad range of industry issues but have brought special attention to bear on right-to-know questions. We expect to face questions on this subject, plant safety, emergency response, transportation safety and related issues on every media tour conducted in 1985. We will prepare spokesmen accordingly.” [excerpt | full document]

“Further, the Bhopal incident has heightened interest in community right-to-know proposals, routing and prenotification of hazardous materials shipments, and in-state emergency response programs. In addtion [sic] to the state level reaction to Bhopal, cities and counties will also be addressing these issues. These initiatives are even harder to track and are sometimes more reactionary in their approach to dealing with issues concerning the chemical industry.” [excerpt | full document]

Unfortunately, not even Bhopal could inspire Congress to crack down effectively on the harmful practices of U.S. chemical companies. The industry continues to harm its workers and surrounding communities while profiting from a lack of meaningful regulation and ineffective enforcement of existing laws governing toxic chemicals.

LINKS

  • For more information about the Bhopal disaster and the ongoing fight for justice, visit www.bhopal.net
  • For Union Carbide’s version of what happened at Bhopal, visit www.bhopal.com
  • Search for “Bhopal” in the Chemical Industry Archives
  • View a Union Carbide ad from 1962 (pre-Bhopal) which boasts of the company’s expanded chemical operations in India, back when the company’s motto was “A Hand In Things To Come”




last updated: march.27.2009

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