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This Day in Labor History: December 2, 1984

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On December 2, 1984, a gas leak in a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed somewhere between 3787 and 16,000 people. Perhaps the worst industrial disaster in world history, the Bhopal disaster shows the criminal negligence by which American corporations treat people of the developing world and why corporate leaders choose to site production facilities in poor parts of the world.

Union Carbide had one of the longest histories in India of any American company, going back to a battery plant opened in Calcutta in 1924. In 1969, Union Carbide opened its first pesticide plant in Bhopal, part of the Indian government’s Green Revolution program that would rely on massive chemical inputs to grow unprecedented tons of crops. By 1983, Union Carbide had 14 plants in India, making chemicals, batteries, pesticides, and other dangerous and highly polluting products. At its Bhopal plant, it produced a pesticide named Sevin. A brand name for carbaryl, Sevin is the third-most sold insecticide in the United States, used by home gardeners, agribusiness, and foresters. Carbaryl contains methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic substance. What is poisonous to insects is often poisonous to humans in large doses.

On the night of December 2, 1984 and into the next morning, between 200,000 and 500,000 of the city’s 800,000 residents were exposed to 93,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals after water entered a side pipe and mixed with the chemicals. The use of non-stainless steel pipelines to save money allowed this to happen. A chemical reaction quickly raised the heat and pressure of the chemicals and the emergency venting of the tank was undertaken. This sent a poisonous cloud spreading southeast from the plant over the city of Bhopal. We don’t know how many people died. The official release said 2259. The local government said 3787. Others put the total at up to 16,000, including those who died later from the illnesses they contracted after exposure. Who knows.

Union Carbide could have easily prevented this leak. But it shut off some of its safety systems in order to save money, sacrificing safety for profit. Operating manuals were in English but most workers read only Hindi. Local officials worried about processing these chemicals in a big city like Bhopal, but Union Carbide executives overrode their concerns because they wanted to centralize production at that facility and sell it to other Asian nations. The limited pollution prevention system in the plant was completely overwhelmed by the size of the factory, with UC putting no money into ensuring such an event did not happen. Between 1980 and 1984, UC laid off half its safety employees in the plant in order to save money.

Not surprisingly, the plant had severe workplace safety issues as well. A 1976 accident blinded a worker. A 1981 leak killed one worker and injured two others. A leak in 1982 nearly killed 28 workers, although none died in the end. There were many more similar incidents. A 1982 safety audit suggested major changes but there is no evidence UC implemented any of them.

Real accountability to Union Carbide officials was never going to happen. UC claimed India forced it to produce the chemical in Bhopal because it wanted domestic production, but this is a) quite possibly a lie and b) says nothing about the lack of safety procedures in the plant. After the disaster, Union Carbide sought to escape all responsibility. It claimed without evidence that someone must have sabotaged the plant. When an Indian court ordered the company to pay $270 million in damages, Union Carbide continued appealing the decision, allowing it to delay payments. In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation but little of this money reached the affected people and what did hardly paid for the long-term health problems faced by the survivors. The deal was so minimal that UC stock rose $2 a share the day of the announcement.

Dodging responsibility certainly did nothing for the people of Bhopal, who suffered (and continue to suffer) long-term respiratory problems and lung disease. The chemicals also created severe liver, spleen, and kidney problems for many survivors. By 2001, no more than half of survivors’ compensation cases had been processed. The factory closed in 1986. Union Carbide, later purchased by Dow, has taken no responsibility for remediation of the factory site, while 91 percent of people living in a resettlement colony near the factory site use water contaminated by its legacy. Meanwhile, when Union Carbide’s West Virginia plant that also produced Sevin released a toxic plume of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride in August 1985, sending 135 people to the hospital, it led to Congress passing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law provided local governments with information about toxic chemicals in order to support emergency planning measures. No such act came to India. In 2010, 8 Indian workers at the plant were convicted of crimes connected to the incident and the seven still living were given 2 years in prison, but no Union Carbide executive faced any legal consequences. Using the Alien Tort Claims Act, the survivors attempted to sue in U.S. courts in 1999 to hold the company accountable for both the victims and the remediation of the site, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

It is precisely that companies can poison workers in India or kill workers in Bangladesh without real consequences that they move away from the United States. The West Virginia incident created an additional layer of accountability for Union Carbide and other chemical companies. With increasingly mobile capitalism, there is no reason for companies to accept such a thing. Easier to just move to a country where people won’t have access to the power structures necessary to create meaningful accountability over wages, working conditions, or pollution. The lives of poor people are meaningless for Union Carbide, Wal-Mart, Target, or thousands of other American corporations involved in the exploitation of the developing world today.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 people in Bhopal today still struggle with the impact of the chemical leak that transformed their lives thirty years ago today. Long term birth defects are another result of the massive contamination that remains on and near the site, including in the drinking water for thousands. Said a recent report on Bhopal’s legacy:

“There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects,” said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

“Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders … this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities.”

But of course there has never been an in depth study to prove the connections. Just a coincidence, no doubt.

There is of course a great deal of material on Bhopal. A bit of this I took from my upcoming book, Out of Sight</a>. I also relied upon Ward Morehouse’s 1993 article “The Ethics of Industrial Disasters in a Transnational World: The Elusive Quest for Justice and Accountability in Bhopal.”

This is the 126th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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