Union Carbide still in denial about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

December 3, 2018

by Martin Odoni

Drowning on dry land

It is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster. It happened in December 1984, in the region of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of India. A factory owned by the Union Carbide Corporation, and located in the industrial city of Bhopal, was producing a pesticide called Sevin (real name ‘Carbaryl’). One of the ingredients in this pesticide was one of the most toxic compounds ever discovered on Earth – methyl isocyanate, or MIC.


The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, before the site had to be abandoned due to the 1984 gas tragedy.

Not long after midnight on Monday 3rd December, gas was detected leaking from the complex network of pipes that threaded their way throughout the plant. Gauges in the control room registered a massive surge in pressure in storage tanks below ground, and the storage rooms directly above the tanks were becoming unnaturally warm. The concrete floor was starting to shake.

Released MIC was rushing in super-heated gaseous form through the maze of pipes. There were several safety mechanisms in its path. The first was a ‘vent gas scrubber‘, which was designed to filter out and extract toxic particulates from escaping gases, mixing them into a payload of caustic soda, which would render them inert. The second was a ‘flare tower’ that could burn discharges of escaping gas. Neither of them activated when workers tried to switch them on.

Over forty tonnes of vaporous MIC surged unobstructed from the factory’s ventilation outlet into the open air, forming a gigantic toxic cloud that gradually spread and returned to the ground across the residential district of the city.

MIC reacts violently with water, heating up and expanding. Unaware of the accident at the plant, thousands of Bhopali inhabitants were breathing in the gas, which reacted with the moisture in their lungs. Their bodies’ immune systems responded by sending blood to the lungs, carrying antibodies to fight off the toxic substance. But with the lungs filling with more and more blood in response to such high concentrations of MIC in the air, it became impossible to breathe.

In one night, well over three thousand people died of, in effect, drowning on dry land.

Investigating the disaster

Subsequent investigation found that one of the three storage tanks below ground, designated ‘E610’, had been over 75% full of liquid MIC; Union Carbide’s own safety guidelines stipulated that the tanks should never be filled above 50% of capacity. Further, one of the three tanks was supposed to be kept empty, to be called into action only as a back-up in exceptional circumstances. But the investigations found that all three of the tanks were in full-time use instead. Guidelines, at least those applying in Europe, stipulated that the total amount of MIC stored on one site should not exceed half a tonne. But in India, no such guidelines were in force, and the amount stored at Bhopal was not far short of 70 tonnes. The cause of these ‘serious irregularities’ (to put it politely) was a recent downturn in the market. Demand for Sevin-Carbaryl pesticide was down, and so production and distribution had been slowed in response. This had led to a backlog building up in the plant of the raw materials to create it, and with nowhere else available to store up the backlog, the excess MIC had simply been pumped into the already-over-the-limit storage tanks.

Analysis of the storage area of the factory found massive cracks had formed in the concrete floor into which the storage tanks had been built. These cracks indicated the enormous heat and violent vibrations caused by a very powerful chemical reaction inside E610 that must have shaken the tank out of its position – even though the concrete floor had previously fixed it in place. Study of the tank found that the emergency pressure-release valve in its outlet pipe was ruptured. Dozens of tonnes of MIC gas therefore escaped the tank in a powerful rush into the venting system, and surged through the maze of pipes, out of the factory, and into the open air. Worse, a refrigeration unit, used to keep the MIC’s temperature at zero degrees centigrade, had been periodically switched off earlier in the year in a bid to cut power costs.

These discoveries were alarming, but did not explain how the MIC in E610 had evaporated. More investigation not only revealed how it happened, but also unveiled a picture of astonishing negligence, penny-pinching and habitual casualness.

MIC – a highly reactive compound

The likeliest explanation for the MIC evaporating was that it had reacted with another substance, and the likeliest candidate for that substance was, as mentioned above, water. That danger was well known of course, and the factory had been designed to keep water away from MIC stores at all times. Union Carbide had chemical plants of this type all over the world, and had worked with substances like MIC for many years, without disaster striking. The usual safety systems had been installed at Bhopal to prevent any contaminants getting mixed in with the MIC. But could there have been a way that water had been allowed to get into E610?

Well, yes there was. One routine problem that would surface regularly was one of the processing units located near to the storage tanks becoming clogged with chemical residues. The only way to get the system cleared of the clogs was to ‘flush them out’, which meant ‘power-hosing’ water into the unit’s inlet pipes. The pressure produced by the high volume of water would rapidly wash the residues away.

This technique was made easier but more dangerous by an unfortunate ‘short-cut’ decision made by plant managers, who a few months earlier had introduced new inlets that fed into the pipe network covering all sections of the plant from the control room. This allowed the factory staff to clear clogs in any part of the system from the same place, without having to lug lots of hoses and pumps around the buildings first. But it also connected the storage tanks into the same network, potentially allowing a pathway for water to reach and contaminate the MIC.

It later emerged that the plant workers had flushed out the pipes less than three hours before the disaster.

Union Carbide entrance

Not very enticing, is it?

Failed safety features

Now the pathway to the MIC tanks did have a safety feature called a ‘slip-blind’. This was a circular metal plate that could be inserted into the join between two lengths of the pipe, sealing off the path to the storage tanks and isolating them from any water in the network for the duration of the cleaning process.

Unfortunately, the maintenance worker whose job it was to make sure that slip-blinds were in position during cleaning work had been laid off a few months earlier – again, to cut costs. On this night, none of the other workers remembered to get the plate fitted before cleaning began.

The MIC tanks themselves had an extra protective feature that might just have stopped water from getting inside. They were pressurised with heavy nitrogen gas above the surface of the MIC. Due to the weight and high concentration of the nitrogen at the top of the tank, this created a barrier that was strong enough to hold back water.

Sadly, over the previous few weeks, workers had been unable to get E610 to pressurise, due to an apparent leak in the input valve. No one reported the fault, no one had located the leak, and no one had therefore got around to fixing it. In all probability, no one was ever going to. So there was no nitrogen seal to block the water either.

It is estimated that as much as 500 kilogrammes of water flowed into tank E610. Small amounts of iron, probably micro-fragments of rust lifted from the interior of the ageing and corroded pipes, were washed into the tank along with the water. Water and MIC react. When impurities like metals are caught in the mix, the reaction is a lot more violent. Hence the violent shaking of the tank causing the concrete around it to crack.

“Sabotage,” you say?

Union Carbide has always maintained that it was not responsible for the MIC leak, blaming the ingress of water into E610 on sabotage. The story that the late-Warren Anderson, the then-Chief Executive of UC, always put about was that a disgruntled employee had maliciously introduced the water into the system, removed the slip-blind from the inlet pipe, and damaged the nitrogen pressure valve. Even today, Union Carbide – now a part of The Dow Chemical Company –  still has this version of events published on its website.

This story neither tallies with the evidence, nor has ever been backed up by anything Union Carbide did in subsequent years. Given that the corporation asserts that an employee had committed an act of malicious sabotage that killed thousands, you would imagine it would have gone to great pains to identify who this employee was, establish his motive, and get him prosecuted. In thirty-four years, none of these have transpired. Not even any clear evidence to support the notion of deliberate damage has ever been presented by Union Carbide, or by Dow. It even seems mildly implausible that an employee inflicted all this damage without any of his colleagues even noticing him do it, or that UC might have found any evidence and not broadcast it from the rooftops.

Moreover, even were it accepted as an accurate explanation, it is highly debatable whether this story would even begin to get the company off the hook anyway. The problem with the story is that, while it offers a possible explanation for how water got into E610, it does not really address anything that happened afterwards, which was no less important.

As the MIC overheated and evaporated, under high pressure it surged through the outlets into the open air. But there were three more essential safety features between the tanks and the open air, and none of them was working.

Union Carbide - Gates of Death

Entrance to a Union Carbide chemical plant

More failed safety features

The aforementioned vent gas scrubber, a fairly large, bottle-shaped tank, was undersized for the scale of the factory, and could only really neutralise small leaks and discharges. Even so, that might still have lessened the scale of the tragedy. However, it was offline anyway, and workers later admitted that for weeks beforehand, they had not seen any sign from the instrumentation that it was working properly. No explanation has ever been offered by Union Carbide for why it was not working. If that was sabotage too, why did the saboteur wait until weeks after he had shut down the scrubber to feed water into the MIC tanks?

The MIC gas passed, completely unobstructed, through the scrubber.

The second line of defence, the flare tower, was a large, chimney-like structure near the final outlet of the pipe network. MIC is highly flammable. So, working a little like a gas cooker lighting up, the flare tower would project a small barrier of flame into the path of the MIC, and that would burn up just about all the gas before it could escape into the air.

Tragically, the flare tower was not working either. A four-foot stretch of pipe, not far below the burner on the flare tower, had become corroded, and was becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It had finally been removed from the outlet a couple of months back, and no one had gotten around to purchasing and fitting a replacement – once more due to cost-cutting and staff shortages. The MIC gas therefore escaped largely around the burner rather than through it.

One last feature might have at least mitigated the tragedy. As MIC reacts with water, it also dissolves in it. Therefore, a mechanised hose system was positioned at the foot of the vent outlet. Water could be sprayed into the escaping plumes of MIC, absorbing the toxic chemicals and bringing them back to Earth without allowing them to spread.

Yet again alas, when the workers deployed the hoses, they found that the mechanism was not powerful enough to spray water to a sufficient altitude actually to reach the gas escaping from the outlet.

Apparently, Union Carbide had instructed the factory management to upgrade the hose system several years earlier. But at the same time, UC had also demanded that operating costs be cut in response to the market downturn. Cutting costs and upgrading systems simultaneously were a pair of contradictory objectives too far, and the management were compelled to choose one or the other. They chose cost-cutting, and so the hose system remained unchanged.

The failure of necessary safety apparatus between the storage tanks and the outside world was critical in causing the disaster, and Union Carbide has no scapegoat for that. How the water got into the MIC tanks, be it by sabotage or by ineptitude, is one matter. But it does not affect the reality that all three of these lines of defence should still have been working and they were not.

A scene from Hades

There was nothing left to stop the forty-plus tonnes of super-heated poison gas from escaping. The 3,000 deaths on the first night were just the beginning of the tragedy. Over the coming months, the death-toll increased to at least 8,000, and the tragedy continues right up to the present day, with the long-term death-toll by some estimates standing as high as 30,000. Dead people, and even dead animals, lined the roadsides for days afterwards, like a scene from a Biblical apocalypse. The local hospital and clinics were overwhelmed by enormous numbers of patients arriving and begging for treatment, either for breathing problems, or for pain in the eyes caused by MIC reacting with moisture from their tear-ducts.

Bhopal funeral pyre

Fire wood ran short in the days after the tragedy, and so mass-cremations had to be carried out on the many, many bodies, to prevent the spread of disease.

It was not just the numbers that were a problem. The medical services had no way of treating the poisoning. Many of the doctors in the city had never even heard of methyl isocyanate. Some assumed the gas was ammonia or even phosgene, both of which were among the chemicals used in the factory. So when the patients complained of the painful irritation in their eyes, the doctors attempted to treat them with eye-drops. Unfortunately of course, eye-drops are aqua-based solutions – principally made of water. So the water in the eye-drops immediately reacted with the MIC in people’s eyes, making it turn even hotter and more abrasive, making the problem even more damaging and painful.

All the warning signs of disaster had been there

This underlines Union Carbide’s negligence, and probable corruption, throughout its handling of the Bhopal facility. The firm had set up the factory in 1972, and knew at the time that it would be using chemical and technological combinations that had never been properly tested before. As a minimum safety precaution, the company should have informed the local emergency services of all the chemicals being deployed there, and made certain that they were supplied with appropriate medical resources to treat human exposure to them. In twelve years, the company had done neither, while it had increasingly compromised safety standards at the factory in order to cut its financial losses. As the plant fell into increasingly poor levels of maintenance, there had been five serious accidents with escaping gases in just three years leading up to the Tragedy, with no corresponding effort to correct the problems that had led to them. The routine dumping of chemical waste products in a nearby lake had also seriously polluted the local water supply. Pressure gauges were frequently ill-calibrated, giving inaccurate readings. Small leaks in containment and conduit facilities were a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, machinery and other apparatus across the factory were becoming rusty and fatigued. After a worker at the plant died of phosgene poisoning in 1981, a local journalist called Rajkumar Keswani began investigating the factory, and was appalled at what he found. He published his findings in Bhopal’s local magazine, Rapat, in which he berated the people of Bhopal to, “Wake up… you are on the edge of a volcano!

In short, all the warning signs of an impending disaster were clearly there. And they were ignored.

Union Carbide runs away

The number of people exposed to the MIC poisoning, and therefore suffering injuries, was well in excess of half a million. And the land in and around Bhopal was so saturated by the toxic fallout that it remains highly poisonous even today. The plant was soon abandoned by Union Carbide. The organisation was clearly not eager to get involved in the enormous task of trying to clean up the hellish mess it had created. The derelict factory still stands now, slowly rotting and corroding, looming over the surrounding city like a sleeping dragon waiting to let out another breath of murderous fire. Even the expense of dismantling the plant was clearly considered too much for Union Carbide.

Bhopal Union Carbide derelict

The abandoned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, left to rot by the company after the disaster that killed thousands.

This is an ongoing tragedy, not a sad-but-inconsequential event from over three decades past. It is now entirely commonplace for babies born in the vicinity of Bhopal to have serious birth defects and abnormalities. The water supply is still very badly contaminated, but locals have to carry on using it, as they have nowhere else to go, and no other source of water for many miles. Tests carried out on samples of water taken from Bhopal suggest that the mercury content alone could be as high as nine hundred parts per million. If that sounds like a tiny proportion, consider that an intake of 0.11 parts per million of mercury is considered excessive, at least for children. And that is before we take into account all the other toxic impurities.

Dow’s and Union Carbide’s almost-childish resistance to responsibility is ongoing. Dow has tried to disown the responsibility on the grounds that it did not purchase Union Carbide until 2001, seventeen years after the Tragedy, and so what happened was nothing to do with them. (Dow has since merged with DuPont Chemical to form the world’s largest chemical-producing conglomerate.) Union Carbide tried to avoid prosecution in India on the grounds that it was not an Indian company but an American company, and therefore did not operate under India’s jurisdiction. At the same time, it tried to avoid prosecution in the USA on the grounds that the Tragedy happened in India, and therefore did not happen under US jurisdiction.

After much of this petty legal wrangling, in 1989 Union Carbide reluctantly paid a settlement of $470 million, plus $17 million to help fund a new local hospital to treat long-term victims of the poisoning. These payments, amounting to about $1,000 per death and $500 per injury, were conditional on Union Carbide being legally immune to any further criminal prosecutions in connection with the Tragedy, and were agreed by the Indian Government without prior consultation with the surviving victims. The payments survivors have received do not even come close to covering the costs of the medical treatment that they will have to receive for the rest of their lives, and have done nothing to detoxify the soil or water supply across the city. The Indian Government, cravenly acting as chief apologist for a rich, powerful multinational corporation that it does not want to risk upsetting for fear of losing its investment, frequently claims that there is no ongoing poisoning in Bhopal, an absurd claim that is completely at variance with all evidence.

Bhopal protesters

The Indian Government has repeatedly caved in to Union Carbide’s abrogation of responsibility, angering many of the survivors.

The campaign for justice

The global campaign for justice for the victims of Bhopal is huge, and with very good reason. It was the most profound and inexcusable example of corporate negligence in the history of Mankind, and the incredible destruction it has caused could take literally centuries to clear up naturally. Tens of thousands of lives have been permanently ruined by the poisoning, and many thousands more lives were ended outright by it. Union Carbide’s endless stalling tactics and evasions of guilt have been utterly contemptible, veering between fictitious claims about sabotage, and untrue legal smokescreens about debatable jurisdiction. Bhopal demonstrates not only human tragedy, but also the inhuman danger posed by corporate power. In the corporate world, money is more important than people, and so profit is more important than safety. Having compromised safety to reduce costs at its pesticide plant, Union Carbide then once more tried to avoid paying the much, much higher costs in necessary compensation after the inevitable disaster to which it led. This not only demonstrates the myopic stupidity of excessive focus on money, it also shows the inhuman void of empathy in corporate forces.

Bhopal proves, in short, that corporate power does not serve humanity, it enslaves humanity, and it sacrifices humanity, in the pursuit of riches. If Union Carbide and the Dow Chemical Company ultimately get away with this crime, humanity will be accepting that subordination to corporate power.

So please. Help stop that happening.

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