Kelly Sans Culotte


Tragedy in Bhopal Goes On
Two decades later, Union Carbide poisons continue to kill.
By Mike McPhate

Gas victim, Mohammed Yunus, 38. Adrian Fisk

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BHOPAL, INDIA. DEC. 22, 2004. When tank 610 blew at the Union Carbide pesticide plant on December 3, 1984, it unleashed a milky fog that killed over 15,000 people. Many died almost instantaneously when the gas attacked their lungs, hearts and brains. Thousands more faced lingering deaths over weeks and years.

Two decades later, Union Carbide poisons continue to kill. During each monsoon season, a gamut of toxins left at the decaying factory leech into the groundwater of the same slums that bore the brunt of the gas leak. Well water in the nearby slum of Atal Ayub Nagar has been shown to contain lead, mercury and a variety of other organic compounds known to attack the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

Resident Inam Ullah, crouching on the porch of his short, burlap-hooded hut, says his body has shrunk by thirty pounds since moving to the area twelve years ago. Increasingly frail, the fifty year-old has been forced to pull his two boys from school and put them to work as day laborers. He blames the water. "My wife has died," said Ullah. "We will die also."

Some cleanup was done. Union Carbide says $2 million was spent on waste removal in the first ten years after the disaster. Still, among the ninety acres of rusted pipes and crumbled warehouses lie hundreds of tons of pesticides and other toxins stored in open drums and heaps of splitting, white sacks.

A pair of studies by Bhopal's state government of Madhya Pradesh in the 1990's, and three more in recent years by independent groups like the Greenpeace Research Laboratory at Britain's University of Exeter, each found severe groundwater pollution attributed to the plant's waste.

Dying of Thirst
Union Carbide spokesman Tomm F. Sprick contradicted the claim, citing a 1997 survey by India's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) that judged the water to be untainted. The company's own consulting firm Arthur D. Little, however, which oversaw the NEERI study, warned that its tests were not comprehensive and that the water may not be safe to drink.

In a door-to-door survey last year of sections surrounding the factory, the gas victim charity Sambhavna Trust found residents stricken by a variety of toxin-related ailments, including anemia, headaches, menstrual disorders, and stomach and chest pain, said the group's director Satinath Sarangi. Severe cases included cancer and growth and mental disorders in children, he added.

While in India's poverty-ridden slums it is difficult to parse out cases of toxin-induced illnesses from the rest, Mohammed Ali Qaiser, a doctor at one of Sambhavna's two clinics says, "The water is obviously contaminated. People not residing in affected areas are not having these kinds of problems." He treats about seventy toxin victims daily.

The state government took note of the health hazard in the late 1990's when it began trucking big barrels of water into affected slums. The effort though proved fitful. Last summer the state provided less than ten percent of the amount of water needed to survive, according to a survey by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. In general, residents are forced to drink well water.

Passing the Buck for Clean Up
Neither the state of Madhya Pradesh, which owns the factory property, nor Union Carbide accepts responsibility for the waste clean-up, estimated at a cost of at least $25 million. Carbide spokesman Sprick says his company's liability ended in 1994 when it severed ties with its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited, which had leased the property.

State officials hold both of the companies responsible. "Our view is that polluters should remove damage that has been done," says Iqbal Ahmed, an official with Bhopal's Gas Relief Department.

Many Bhopal activists say a pro-industry mindset among officials in India's capital, New Delhi, has kept them from pursuing accountability from Union Carbide, whose parent company Dow Chemicals is a top investor in the country.

The head of New Delhi's Bhopal disaster portfolio Ramesh Inder Singh says the issue has languished so long only because the legal nightmare that followed the disaster — over a million claims were lodged — has kept their offices paralyzed.

Back in Court
This summer, the Indian government finally approved a lawsuit underway in New York, brought by Bhopal victims against Union Carbide, which seeks to compel the company to clean the site and pay damages to victims. The US court had required India's permission to proceed with the case.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs in the suit, Himanshu Rajan Sharma, says, "Carbide's handling of the whole Bhopal issue is a travesty. If that disaster or even the subsequent contamination had occurred elsewhere in Europe or the United States, I very much doubt that Union Carbide would have had the temerity to behave with the disregard and contempt that it has shown to the victims in this instance."

Ironically, the factory in Bhopal was opened to great acclaim in 1969. At that time, the new pesticides seemed a miracle to a hungry country whose crops were regularly decimated by insects.

The tank exploded when water was somehow introduced into a tank holding 40 tons of the potent chemical methyl isocyanate, setting off a reaction that burst a valve. While the company still blames the gas leak on nameless saboteurs, Indian investigators have attributed it to shoddy supervision and design flaws.

Union Carbide settled all gas-leak claims in 1989 when it paid a lump sum of $470 million in an out-of-court settlement with the Indian government. Mohammed Yunus, 38, like most of the more than 500,000 successful claimants to the money, received about $550. His meager compensation payment has run dry and he can no longer afford the cheap antibiotic pills that had once easily suppressed the skin lesions resulting from exposure to the gas.

The Indian government is partly to blame for the paltry compensation. India's Supreme Court recently ordered an additional $345 million to be doled out from the settlement, which has sat for fifteen years in government coffers earning interest.

Victims also complain that the government accepted too little to pay the medical costs of lifelong illnesses. Union Carbide defends the payout on its website as "much larger than any previous damage award in India, and $120 million more than plaintiff's lawyers had told U.S. Courts was fair." Spokesman Sprick also noted that the company also provided $90 million for a victims' hospital in Bhopal.

Hang Anderson
No amount of reparations can assuage the anger that many survivors continue to aim at Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the disaster. They are galled, they say, that the wealthy retiree has never faced judgment for his role in the tragedy. Last year, India sought to extradite Anderson from the US to face a Bhopal court where he is charged with "culpable homicide." US authorities rejected the request on technical grounds.

Written in big, black letters on a white wall facing the front of the Union Carbide compound are the words "Hang Anderson." Residents still mark the disaster's anniversary by burning him in effigy. But while many in Bhopal continue to wish for blood, others say they wish only for accountability.

Sanjay Verma, 21, who lost his parents, three brothers, and two sisters in the gas leak, said the factory's oozing poison is an ongoing insult to survivors. "It's horrible. There should be a museum, or a park, something in memory of those who died," he says.

On a recent afternoon, as the autumn sun dipped low and a nearby muezzin called the faithful to prayer, Verma took a walk through the factory that wiped out most of his family. With the plant's noxious fumes in his nostrils, he pondered for a moment the thought of confronting Anderson, then said in a measured tone that he would only want to ask him: "Don't you realize you have committed a crime?"

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