Watch this first amazing video. It is 16-minute long but worth every second (and see this BBC background page):
Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1983 remember Bhopal as a major industrial disaster. On December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant (UC was bought by Dow Chemical in 2001) released poisoned gas that killed an official estimate of approximately 3,800 people (actually doctors on site claim that 15,000 died within a month). Over 500,000 have been affected by inhaling the gas.
The wikipedia page has the details of the health effects (short- and long-term) of this catastrophe.To this day, Bhopal still shows signs of contamination, especially in the water, because the company has never cleaned up its mess.
As the video shows, the plant was not maintained properly and safeguards did not function on that fatal night. And the very fact of having a chemical plant in such a densely populated area was a disaster waiting to happen. Engineers had raised the alarm about the situation at the plant, but to no avail. Why such poor maintenance? Cost-cutting, of course. Again, Wikipedia has the long list of defective systems.
Union Carbide denies any responsibility in the disaster, arguing that it was the result of sabotage by an employee (never identified). Over time, the company has paid money to different charity organizations. And it paid around $400 million to India (the Indian government had asked for several billions of dollars). This might seem like a lot of money but it does not cover the long-term medical care needed by the people living in Bhopal, nor the economic relief needed (a lot of people have lost their livelihood).
Moreover, Union Carbide has always rejected Indian court summons arguing that, being a US company, India has no jurisdiction (how interesting that transnational corporations play the "national" card when it suits them). At the same time, a US Supreme Court decision deprived the Bhopal victims from seeking redress in US courts. Catch 22.
"Hundreds of tons of waste still languish inside a tin-roofed warehouse in a corner of the old grounds of the Union Carbide pesticide factory here, nearly a quarter-century after a poison gas leak killed thousands and turned this ancient city into a notorious symbol of industrial disaster.
The toxic remains have yet to be carted away. No one has examined to what extent, over more than two decades, they have seeped into the soil and water, except in desultory checks by a state environmental agency, which turned up pesticide residues in the neighborhood wells far exceeding permissible levels.
Nor has anyone bothered to address the concerns of those who have drunk that water and tended kitchen gardens on this soil and who now present a wide range of ailments, including cleft palates and mental retardation, among their children as evidence of a second generation of Bhopal victims, though it is impossible to say with any certainty what is the source of the afflictions.
Why it has taken so long to deal with the disaster is an epic tale of the ineffectiveness and seeming apathy of India’s bureaucracy and of the government’s failure to make the factory owners do anything about the mess they left."
Indeed, civil society groups advocating for the victims hold both the company and the government responsible for the lack of adequate compensation, clean-up and support for the victims. Of course, Dow contends that, since it did not own UC back then, it is not its job to do anything about Bhopal. And if corporate legalese does not work, how about veiled threats:
"In a letter to the Indian ambassador to the United States in 2006, the Dow chairman, Andrew N. Liveris , sought assurance from the government that it would not be held liable for the mess on the old factory site, “in your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.”"
Translation: leave us alone or we won’t come and invest in your country. And since India wants to be attractive to foreign investments, that strategy might work.
"One arm of the government, the Chemicals and Petrochemicals Ministry, entrusted with the cleanup of the site, has wanted Dow to put down a $25 million deposit toward the cost of remediation, while other senior officials warned that forcing Dow’s hand could endanger future investments in the country.
A senior government official, prohibited from speaking publicly on such a contentious issue, described the quandary. “Do you want $1 billion in investment, or do you want this sticky situation to continue?” the official said, calling it a stalemate.
The government is expected to make a final decision later this year."
Beyond legal responsibility, there are still 425 tons of hazardous waste on the site, 24 years after the disaster, mainly because the company was allowed to turn over the land to the government before the cleanup was done. And in, unfortunately, typical Indian government bureaucratic nightmare fashion, things are still up in the air. Lawsuits have been filed, but it’s snail pace here as well. In the meantime, you still have this industrial decaying wasteland at the heart of the town.
And that’s not all:
"Since the disaster, ill-considered decisions on the part of local residents have only compounded the problems and heightened their health risks. Just beyond the factory wall is a blue-black open pit. Once the repository of chemical sludge from the pesticide plant, it is now a pond where slum children and dogs dive on hot afternoons. Its banks are an open toilet. In the rainy season, it overflows through the slum’s muddy alleys.
The slum rose up shortly after the gas leak. Poor people flocked here, seeking cheap land, and put up homes right up to the edge of the sludge pond. Once, the pond was sealed with concrete and plastic. But in the searing heat, the concrete cover eventually collapsed.
The first tests of groundwater began, inexplicably, 12 years after the gas leak. The state pollution control board turned up traces of pesticides, including endosulfan, lindane, trichlorobenzene and DDT. Soil sediments were not tested. The water was never compared with water in other city neighborhoods. The pollution board saw no cause for alarm.
Nevertheless, in 2004, complaints from residents led the Supreme Court to order the state to supply clean drinking water to the people living around the factory. By then, nearly 20 years had gone by.
“It is a scandal that the hazardous wastes left behind by Union Carbide unattended for 20 years have now migrated below ground and contaminated the groundwater below the factory and in its neighborhood,” wrote Claude Alvares, a monitor for India’s Supreme Court, who visited here in March 2005.
He tasted the water from one well. “I had to spit out everything,” he wrote in his report. The water “had an appalling chemical taste.” Neighborhood women brought out their utensils to show how the water had corroded them."
Well, the state gas and health minister (what a title!) thinks none of this stuff is toxic anymore, so, everything’s fine, I guess. He thinks it’s all hype. Some of the waste was supposed to be transported to another state but nothing seems to be happening.
And of course, because the land is cheap, it is crowded with the poor and the destitute, those who do not have many options when it comes to housing. Their children are born with all sorts of medical conditions, handicaps and deformities because they are all exposed to the sludge pond and might use water from it. And the government no longer studies the water to see how toxic it is.
And so, the struggle for justice continues… 24 years on and counting.