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Dec 5, 2009
On the Ground for 25th Anniversary of World's Worst Chemical Disaster
Adil is one of a thousand stories of struggle and survivorship in Bhopal. You can read Adil's story here
Last week I had the fortune of attending the marches of the 25th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, India. Over 2 days, I marched with over a thousand survivors and their families.
To see their conviction, courage, and empowerment 25 years later was humbling.
To see their suffering, anger, and deep-seated sense of injustice was tragic.
Today I got permission from the government to tour the abandoned Union Carbide factory, the ill-fated American-owned pesticide plant which exploded on "that night." Sadly I witnessed a lack of corporate and governmental responsibility for the neighbors. Little environmental clean-up has taken place.
Walls between the contaminated area and the nearby slums had fallen down as children played cricket 50 meters from the infamous tanks which leaked tons of methyl isocyanate shown in the below photo. One kid was collecting firewood next to the tanks. Goats and pigs were feeding inside the contaminated area. While I filmed and photographed near the tanks, I felt light-headed and nauseated. Later, something landed in my eye which burned like acid and I had to wash it with water for several minutes.
You can learn more about the ongoing tragedy through this brief video titled Hush, Baby.
What do they want? Justice
When do they want it?
If you find yourself concerned, compelled, and would like to help take action go to Amnesty International's website to contact either Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Dow Chemicals who now owns Union Carbide. You can also get involved with the International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal.
Rather than use my words to paraphrase what happened and what's happening, you can read these excerpts from the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
Remembers Aziza Sultan, a survivor: "At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of my baby coughing badly. In the half light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a lot of people shouting. They were shouting 'run, run'. Then I started coughing with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My eyes were burning.
Another survivor, Champa Devi Shukla, remembers that "It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran.
"Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives – even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran." In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many died in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas. The force of the human torrent wrenched children's hands from their parents' grasp. Families were whirled apart," reported the Bhopal Medical Appeal in 1994.
"The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion." According to Rashida Bi, a survivor who lost five gas-exposed family members to cancers, those who escaped with their lives “ are the unlucky ones; the lucky ones are those who died on that night.”
On the night of Dec. 2nd and 3rd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate. None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak were operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. These ailments include blindness, extreme difficulty in breathing, and gynecological disorders. The site has never been properly cleaned up and it continues to poison the residents of Bhopal. In 1999, local groundwater and wellwater testing near the site of the accident revealed mercury at levels between 20,000 and 6 million times those expected. Cancer and brain-damage- and birth-defect-causing chemicals were found in the water;
trichloroethene, a chemical that has been shown to impair fetal development, was found at levels 50 times higher than EPA safety limits.Testing published in a 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women. In 2001, Michigan-based chemical corporation Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, thereby acquiring its assets and liabilities. However Dow Chemical has steadfastly refused to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water, compensate the victims, or disclose the composition of the gas leak, information that doctors could use to properly treat the victims.
The agony of Bhopal
On 3rd December 1984, poison gas leaked from a Union Carbide factory, killing thousands. How many thousands, no one knows. Carbide says 3,800. Municipal workers who picked up bodies with their own hands, loading them onto trucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. Such body counts become meaningless when you know that the dying has never stopped.
Since the disaster, survivors have been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders and what one doctor described as "monstrous births.” The gas-affected people of Bhopal continue to succumb to injuries sustained during the disaster, dying at the rate of one each day. Treatment protocols are hampered by the company's continuing refusal to share information it holds on the toxic effects of MIC. Both Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical claim the data is a "trade secret," frustrating the efforts of doctors to treat gas-affected victims. The site itself has never been cleaned up, and a new generation is being poisoned by the chemicals that Union Carbide left behind.
In December 1999, Greenpeace reported that soil and water in and around the plant were contaminated by organochlorines and heavy metals. A February 2002 study found mercury, lead and organochlorines in the breast milk of women living near the plant. The children of gas-affected women are subject to a frightening array of debilitating illnesses, including retardation, gruesome birth defects, and reproductive disorders.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian government, agreed to pay out some $470 million in compensation. The victims weren’t consulted in the settlement discussions, and many felt cheated by their compensation -$300-$500 - or about five years’ worth of medical expenses. Today, those who were awarded compensation are hardly better off than those who weren’t.
Victims of the gas attack eke out a perilous existence; 50,000 Bhopalis can’t work due to their injuries and some can’t even muster the strength to move. The lucky survivors have relatives to look after them; many survivors have no family left. Everyone has perished.
In 1991, the local government in Bhopal charged Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO at the time of the disaster, with manslaughter. If tried in India and convicted, he faces a maximum of ten years in prison. However Mr. Anderson has never stood trial before an Indian court; he has, instead, evaded an international arrest warrant and a summons to appear before a US court. For years Mr. Anderson’s whereabouts were unknown, and it wasn’t until August of 2002 that Greenpeace found him, living a life of luxury in the Hamptons. Neither the American nor the Indian government seem interested in disturbing him with an extradition, despite the recent scandals over corporate crime. This is unfortunate: Mr. Anderson’s decisions didn’t just wipe out retirement plans, they killed people.
The Union Carbide Corporation itself was charged with culpable homicide, a criminal charge whose penalty has no upper limit. These charges have never been resolved, as Union Carbide, like its former CEO, has refused to appear before an Indian court. Union Carbide also remains liable for the environmental devastation its operations have caused. Environmental damages were never addressed in the 1989 settlement, and the contamination that Union Carbide left behind continues to spread. These liabilities became the property of the Dow Corporation, following its 2001 purchase of Union Carbide. The deal was completed much to the chagrin of a number of Dow stockholders, who filed suit in a desperate attempt to stop it. These stockholders were surely aware that a corporation assumes both the assets and the liabilities of any company it purchases, according to established corporate law. Indeed, Dow was quick to pay off an outstanding claim against Union Carbide soon after it acquired the company, setting aside $2.2 billion to pay off former Union Carbide asbestos workers in Texas. However Dow has consistently and stringently maintained that it isn’t liable for the Bhopal accident.
Thus the victims in Bhopal have been left in the lurch, told to fend for themselves as corporate executives elude justice and big corporations elude the blame. Dow’s unwillingness to fulfill its legal and moral obligations in Bhopal represents only the latest chapter in this horrifying humanitarian disaster. For twenty years, the victims of Bhopal have continued to demand justice; the only question is: will we listen? Another excellent article about the disaster can be found here, and a comprehensive interview with Sathyu about the 20-year campaign can be found here. For more information about the Bhopal accident, please visit our links page.