20 Years Ago, Today

Abraham Epton

Shortly after midnight on December 3rd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant released 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) into the air over the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. The highly toxic chemical release killed 3,000 people right away, 15,000 people after a few more days, and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 people, making it the deadliest industrial accident in history. (Note: almost every article on the accident comes up with different figures for immediate, short- and long-term deaths and injuries; these numbers come from Wikipedia.) 20 years later, according to the BBC, Union Carbide (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical) still has not addressed the lingering contamination caused by the disaster, which continues to poison the citizens of Bhopal, chiefly through drinking water contaminated 500 times beyond what the World Health Organization considers to be the maximum acceptable limit. Union Carbide/Dow claims that when it turned over control of the site in 1998, it “found no evidence of groundwater contamination.” Responds the BBC: But there are still thousands of tons of toxic waste on the abandoned and dilapidated site, lying in piles exposed to the weather. We found pools of mercury lying on the ground, skips full of poisonous material and in some sheds, chemical waste in bags that was still highly dangerous. In one building on the site, the atmosphere was so poisonous I could barely breathe. In a really classy move, UCC/Dow also insists that it was not responsible for the plant, blaming its construction and management solely on its Indian subsidiary, Indian consultants and Indian workers. This is flatly contradicted once again by the Beeb, which reports: The evidence of the close relationship between the Indian Company and UCC suggests that [the former senior safety officer’s] resignation must have been reported to headquarters. I met another another senior Bhopal engineer who had been transferred to UCC in America. He told me that when he revisited the plant, he found that safety standards had fallen so much he became convinced it should be closed down. He passed his concerns on to his boss in the company’s American headquarters. There exists a campaign to bring Dow to justice, and the BBC reported earlier today that, per an interview with a spokesman for Dow, the company had finally accepted full responsibility for the incident. Unfortunately, the “spokesman” interviewed turned out not to have been affiliated with Dow at all, and was instead perpetrating a cruel hoax. My faith in American multinational corporations is now officially shaken. (Credit to Slashdot for most of these links.)

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