Union Carbide Company: An Indian Dossier

Posted on June 27, 2010 in Society

Sango Bidani:

Union Carbide Company, which is famously known as the Dow Chemical Industries, is a U.S based company which set up the Union Carbide India Limited as early as 1934 with Union Carbide Company holding a 51% stake in the company and the rest 49% stake was of Indian investors including the Government of India. Union Carbide India Limited (henceforth UCIL) produced batteries, carbon products, welding equipments, plastics, industrial chemicals, pesticides and marine products. In 1970, UCIL built a pesticide plant in Bhopal which led to the infamous and most tragic industrial disaster in which more than 30,000 people were killed due to a massive leak of Methyl Isocynate (MIC) which had a hazardous exothermic reaction with water which led to the gas escaping into the air. In 1994, UCIL was renamed as Eveready Industries India Limited (EIIL). Following the Bhopal Gas Tragedy the Union Carbide India Limited maintained a low key profile. The property was seized by the Govt. of India and the Chairman and Vice Chairman both moved to other areas. Following the disaster a case was filed in the US court that the case against Union Carbide should be sent to India and reaffirmed that UCIL, which operated the Bhopal plant, was a separate and independent legal entity that was managed and staffed by Indian citizens. In 1989, the Government of India agreed to a full and final settlement with the UCC and signed off all of UCC’s civil and criminal liabilities in exchange for a partly sum of US$450 million even though it had begun by claiming damages to the tune of over US$3 billion. Then, when the incident had taken place the UCIL decided that they would remove the methyl isocynate gas from the remaining two tanks 611 and 619 which meant a mass evacuation for a second time and this time too the evacuation process was haphazard. The then Chairman of the Union Carbide Company, Warren Anderson, knew that such an incident could take place after the safety audit by an American agency declared that proper safety procedures were not in place. Even then, he did not do anything to change the situation and was blissfully ignorant about this problem. And to add to the list of controversies regarding this most tragic incident, when Warren Anderson came to India and was inspecting the damage and was arrested, after a few hours he was released and was given the privilege of traveling in a state owned aircraft to Delhi so that he could take a connecting flight back to the US. So despite his knowing everything and the Indian Govt. knowing how crucial he was to get details about the incident, he was let off. And the UCIL factory workers had reported several times of incidents of gas leaks from the Bhopal plant. In 1981, a worker was splashed with phosgene. In panic he ripped off his mask, thus inhaling a large amount of phosgene gas; he died 72 hours later. In January 1982, there was a phosgene leak, when 24 workers were exposed and had to be admitted to hospital. None of the workers had been ordered to wear protective masks. In August 1982, a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, resulting in burns over 30 percent of his body. In October 1982, there was a leak of MIC, methylcarbaryl chloride, chloroform and hydrochloric acid. In attempting to stop the leak, the MIC supervisor suffered intensive chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases. During 1983 and 1984, leaks of the following substances regularly took place in the MIC plant: MIC, chlorine, monomethylamine, phosgene, and carbon tetrachloride, sometimes in combination. Reports issued months before the incident by scientists within the Union Carbide Corporation warned of the possibility of an accident almost identical to that which occurred in Bhopal. The reports were ignored and never reached senior staff. Union Carbide was warned by American experts who visited the plant after 1981 of the potential of a “runaway reaction” in the MIC storage tank; local Indian authorities warned the company of problems on several occasions from 1979 onwards. Again, these warnings were not heeded. So we can see that the UCIL was clearly negligent as was its American counterpart UCC. There were also various deficiencies in the UCIL management. These were:- lack of skilled operators due to staffing policy, reduction of safety management due to reducing the staff, insufficient maintenance of the plant and lack of emergency response plans. Safety systems were switched off to save money – including the MIC tank refrigeration system which alone could have prevented the disaster.

This was the condition of the Union Carbide India Limited Plant in Bhopal.

So, clearly, there was an unholy nexus between the Union Carbide Company, Union Carbide India Limited and the Indian Government which led to the tragic incident. But it has to be admitted that had it not been for Union Carbide India Limited’s poor management and recklessness and Union Carbide Company’s blissful ignorance this incident would never have taken place.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz. With his interests in socio-political issues, he is more than willing to change the ‘system‘. He sees himself as an ethical journalist in the years to come.

image: http://monkeysmashesheaven.wordpress.com/2009/12/03/25th-anniversary-of-union-carbide-murder-in-bhopalindia/