The 1984 Bhopal Disaster also known as Bhopal Gas Tragedy

In a file picture taken on December 4, 1984 soldiers guard the entrance of Union Carbide factory in Bhopal after a deadly poison gas leak.

The Bhopal disaster was one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes. It occurred on the night of December 2–3, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. A leak of methyl isocynate gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Victims

Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.  Others estimate 3,000-8000 {Greenpeace} died within weeks and another 8,000-20,000 {Greenpeace}have since died from gas-related diseases. According to the Indian Council for Medical Research, 25,000 people have died from exposure since the initial explosion. But this is not some quarter-century-old tragedy to shake one’s head over and move on. It’s estimated that 10 to 30 people continue to die from exposure every month. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.

The UCIL factory was built in 1969 to produce the pesticide Sevin (UCC’s brand name for carbaryl) using methyl isocyanate (MIC) as an intermediate. An MIC production plant was added in 1979.

Picture taken by Raghu Rai on the morning of December 3rd, 1984, after the night of horror in Bhopal when a huge cloud of poison gas 500 times more toxic than cyanide

During the night of December 2–3, 1984, water entered a tank containing 42 tons of MIC. The resulting exothermic reaction increased the temperature inside the tank to over 200 °C (392 °F) and raised the pressure. The tank vented releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere. The gases were blown by northwesterly winds over Bhopal. The problem was made worse by the mushrooming of slums in the vicinity of the plant, non-existent catastrophe plans, and shortcomings in health care and socio-economic rehabilitation.

Factors leading to the magnitude of the gas leak include:

    • Storing MIC (methyl isocyanate) in large tanks and filling beyond recommended levels
    • Poor maintenance after the plant ceased MIC production at the end of 1984
    • Failure of several safety systems (due to poor maintenance)
    • Safety systems being switched off to save money—including the MIC tank refrigeration system which could have mitigated the disaster severity

Union Carbide negotiated a settlement with the Indian Government in 1989 for $470 million – a total of only $370 to $533 per victim – a sum too small to pay for most medical bills. In 1987, a Bhopal District Court charged Union Carbide officials, including then CEO Warren Anderson, with “culpable homicide, grievous assault and other serious offences. Anderson was declared a fugitive from justice by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992, for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. The chief judicial magistrate, Prakash Mohan Tiwari, issued an arrest warrant for Anderson on July 31, 2009. The United States has declined to extradite him citing “a lack  of evidence.” Anderson, now lives in the Hamptons (and owns several other homes across the U.S.), even though there’s an international arrest warrant out for him for culpable homicide.

WANTED: Warren Anderson

Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical (the company that made napalm for the U.S. to use in the Vietnam War) in 2001, and Dow claims the legal case was resolved in 1989, with responsibility for continued cleanup now falling to the local state government.  In June 2010, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted in Bhopal of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by law. An eighth former employee was also convicted, but died before judgment was passed.

The Bhopal Medical Appeal

The Bhopal disaster –

“Bhopal Disaster’s 25th Anniversary” – 12/03/2009 – BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS  by Meg White –

“A disaster by design – V.Venkatesan (2002, Frontline) –

Obama accused of muting Bhopal disaster –

( edited by Kevin Alexander Gray 2011)

1 Comment

Filed under Criminal Justice, East Asia, Environmental, Immigrant Rights, Labor, racism

One response to “The 1984 Bhopal Disaster also known as Bhopal Gas Tragedy

  1. Colin Toogood

    This is a very good, well researched article. Thanks for linking to the Bhopal Medical Appeal it is very much appreciated and we’ve re-posted your blog through our Facebook page.

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