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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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  • Mudge

    To say that “Carbaryl contains methyl isocyanate” is very inexact. Methyl isocyanate, when reacted with other chemicals, changes to form the molecule carbaryl. The product, Sevin, contains no methyl isocyanate per se.

  • Denverite

    The West Virginia incident wasn’t the only US methyl isocyanate spill around that time.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/06/world/same-chemical-injured-31-people-in-upstate-spill.html

    I know a few of the evacuated students.

  • heckblazer

    What is poisonous to insects is often poisonous to humans in large doses.

    Nerve gas was accidentally discovered by German scientists researching new pesticides. Nerve agents like Sarin, Tabun and VX are organphosphate chemicals, as are the pesticides parathion and malathion, and they’re similar enough that when the DoD wanted to figure out what the long-term effects of sub-lethal exposure to nerve gas was they looked at farm workers.

  • Bruce Vail

    Don’t know whether this was a Union Carbide media strategy at the time or not, but I recall a lot of discussion in the late 80s that the fault lay with the incompetent Indian managers/workers, rather than with the corporate higher-ups in the US. The argument at the time was that UC had safely produced products of this kind for decades in the US because they were allowed to do so without interference from the government, whereas the Indian government had required that Indians be hired as plant managers and workers even though they were not really qualified to do the work safely. The attitude that it was all the Indians’ fault seemed pretty pervasive at the time.

    • Mudge

      My memory..which is not infallible..is that the Indian government owned 51% of the facility. A public-private enterprise (heard that term lately?). Hence certain requirements.

    • The Indian government, which is certainly not without its own culpability in all of this, may have required a certain percentage of employees be Indian, but it’s not as if a) Indian managers can’t be trained in proper safety procedures and b) Union Carbide didn’t hold most of the power in this relationship.

      I suspect this is much more of a media strategy than reality. UC was blaming everyone but itself for this. It was even accusing its plant of being sabotaged.

      • Also, reading this description now (I was three years old and on the other side of the planet at the time) it sounds as if there’s a healthy dose of racism in this justification. As in “obviously Indians are bumbling, poorly educated incompetents whom we were forced to hire over qualified white people.”

        Also, requiring that a foreign investor hire local employees is a thoroughly sensible and indeed common condition for granting government permission for plants and other endeavors. Whatever else the Indian government did wrong, this was surely a common-sense policy.

        • Bruce Vail

          Absolutely true there was a healthy dose of racism in the argument that ‘UC is a good company but those damned Indians fucked everything up.’ I see a lot of the same thing today in discussion of the textile tragedies in Bangladesh, where the local managers take the full blame for the tragedies while WalMart, Disney, etc. get off scot free.

      • Bruce Vail

        Well of course one of the benefits to a US company of outsourcing industrial production to a Third World country is that the responsibility for safety/worker rights can be pushed down to the local level (see Apple in China, etc).

      • Phil Perspective

        Why do you hate Matt Yglesias?!?!?

        • tsam

          He’s just so hatable. (Hateable? Hate-able) WHAT. EVER.

    • advocatethis

      Of course, UC would always have the option, if they felt they couldn’t safely operate with the available labor pool, to shutter the plant…

    • JR

      The Union Carbide pesticide factory here in West Virginia is in the small town of Institute, also the home of West Virginia State University. Formerly a Historically Black College, I attended graduate school there for 2 semesters after graduating from Marshall University while searching for my first job.

      The odor just down wind from the plant was at times suffocating. Just driving by on I-64 was an exposure to the vilest smelling chemicals you can imagine. There was also a WV Division of Rehabilitation facility between the college (now University) and the chemical factory. The people enrolled in rehab programs lived and studied a stones throw from ethyl-methyl death. (A local term for unidentified toxic chemicals common in the local environment.)

      Not very long ago they had a violent explosion in the factory, which hurled a large steel plate very nearby the MIC unit, where hundreds of thousands of pounds of MIC was stored in underground tanks. Not long after that (very scary) event Bayer Crop Sciences (the new owner of the Union Carbide pesticide factory after Dow bought Carbide.) decided to stop holding large amounts of MIC on site.

      The point I’m making is that Union Carbide doesn’t care 1 red cent more about the local population in West Virginia than they did for the Indian local population in Bhopal. Nor do any of the other business owners in this area, or any other area. They all care exactly as much as they are forced to care by regulation and law.

      Personally, I think ownership and top management of these corporations should have to live immediately down wind of their facilities with their families, and bathe in the outflow being discharged into the local streams. Making coffee with that same outflow is, in my mind, an optional choice which should be available to local homeowners if they feel the need for it.

      This one simple requirement would take care of most chemical pollution in just a few paragraphs. Then we could spend real effort on greenhouse gases.

  • DrDick

    More proof of the beneficence of our corporate overlords. Companies routinely did this kind of thing here and in Europe until we made it illegal (and often still do in places, like Texas and Louisiana, where they can get away with it).

    • the beneficence of our corporate overlords.

      UC gave all those people free chemicals. And yet, somehow, there is no gratitude.

      • advocatethis

        Well, that was 30 years ago. If it happened today they would no doubt charge them for the chemicals, as well as distribution charges.

    • advocatethis

      They’ll do it as much as they can, wherever they can, constantly testing the limits of just how unsafely they can operate. It’s not just Texas and Louisiana, even in California you have Chevron Oil trying to buy elections in Richmond so they’ll face less scrutiny of their operations and can control the local response when they poison the city again.

      • DrDick

        Exactly!

      • Mike G

        There’s the pristine safety regulations on the books for butt-covering, but in actuality the pressures on plant management are such that they have to bend the rules and cut corners to save money and boost production, or they get fired.

  • tinycatpaws

    Don’t forget the Yes Men’s spoof apology for Union Carbide on the BBC

    • Jordan

      that …. didn’t go over so well (ETA: as they note).

  • Workers poisoned for decades at Kentucky nuclear weapons plant

    Union Carbide ran a gaseous diffusion plant for uranium dust and later recycling nuclear weapons in Paducah KY. Read the article for the details. Spoiler: lots of people died of cancer.

    • I wouldn’t have know about it except for the song by Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers “Something in the Water”, which I thought was generalized complaint about industrial pollution, but was very specifically about this plant and it’s pollution.

  • toberdog

    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 Minnesota law firm that obtained the award made out quite handsomely, however.

    • postmodulator

      Ah, limited liability. Behind both most of our economic success and nearly all the misery in the world.

    • Denverite

      Who was the firm?

      • MikeMikeMike

        Robins Kaplan was involved in that litigation. Not sure if there were others or not.

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    • tsam

      So are you saying that you DO like Pearl Jam?

  • The Temporary Name

    I think it’s worth mentioning that Union Carbide’s CEO Warren Anderson flew to Bhopal and was quickly arrested. The story is fairly interesting.

    http://www.thebhopalpost.com/index.php/2010/06/how-anderson-came-and-left/

    He died a month ago.

    https://in.news.yahoo.com/bhopal-fugitive-warren-anderson-dead-144622590.html

    • tsam

      Since retiring in 1986, Anderson “couldn’t even go out to dinner without worrying about process servers”, the news portal cited a former Carbide executive as recalling.

      Well, I guess that’s slightly better than nothing. Unfortunate that he didn’t get a few lung shots of his poison.

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