Twenty-five years ago, thousands of residents of Bhopal, India awoke in the middle of the night struggling to breathe. A Union Carbide pesticide plant had leaked 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic substance that had escaped in gas form and spread quickly through the densely populated city. The Indian Council on Medical Research estimates that between 8,000 and 10,000 people died in the first three days after the catastrophe; another 25,000 perished later from effects of the exposure.
Thousands of survivors report respiratory, neurological, skin, and eye problems that prevent them from earning a decent living. Children born to survivors also have high rates of birth defects and developmental problems. Toxic exposures didn’t end once the released gas dissipated, either; chemicals leaking from the plant, which was closed in 1985, continue to contaminate groundwater. Randeep Ramesh in the Guardian reports on one study that found water near the facility contained pesticides at levels 40 times above that of India’s safety standard, and a second found the carcinogen carbon tetraflouride at a level 2,400 times greater than World Health Organization guidelines, along with multiple other chemicals.
In the quarter-century since this disaster, what have we done to ease victims’ suffering and prevent a similar catastrophe? Not nearly enough.
Union Carbide made an out-of-court settlement of just $470 million, and no victim received more than $1,000. In her article in the Independent, Nina Lakhani notes, “Had compensation been the same as for those exposed to asbestos under US court rulings against defendants that also included Union Carbide, the liability would have exceeded $10bn.” And as AFP’s Yasmeen Mohiuddin reports, many survivors have found it impossible to get a meaningful sum even after years of struggle:
In order to claim compensation, survivors had to prove their ailments — including kidney problems, cancer and respiratory illnesses — were actually caused by the toxic cloud that belched from the plant.
“This was very hard for people who were poor and illiterate to hire lawyers, doctors and middlemen to go testify,” said Rachna Dhingra, coordinator with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), an umbrella group of survivors’ organisations.
A 2004 Supreme Court ruling ordered money left over from the settlement, and the interest accrued on it, be given to survivors, meaning many people received a second payment, or their first one ever.
But the ICJB estimates at least 100,000 people received only interim compensation of 200 rupees (four dollars) per month immediately after the world’s worst industrial accident, and never got any final lump sum payment.
Many more received nothing at all, the result of red tape, corruption, and civil servants who rejected claim forms because names had been misspelled, said Dhingra.
Most of the victims who did receive compensation got 25,000 rupees (500 dollars) to fund a lifetime of hospital visits — with the interim payment deducted from that sum.
Relatives of those killed were paid an additional 100,000 rupees for each family member who died.
“If we had received the money all at once I could have helped my family pay for medical treatment. We couldn’t do anything with 200 rupees a month,” said Aziza Sultan, who says she miscarried on the street while fleeing the site in terror and entered menopause at the age of 32 after being exposed to the gas.
Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company in 2001, and a statement on Dow’s website reads, “Dow has no responsibility for Bhopal.” Amnesty International is urging India’s Prime Minister to end 25 years of injustice for the people of Bhopal and Dow to address the legacy of the disaster.
As for what the US has learned from the disaster, the initial response was promising: Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. EPCRA requires facilities that keep hazardous substances on site to immediately report the releases of any large quantities of these substances, and to make information available to the community about the chemicals they’re using and what they’re releasing.
Twenty-five years after Bhopal, there’s still an awful lot we don’t know about the safety of chemicals being used and released in this country. (For instance, EPA has only managed to compel hazard testing for around 200 of the tens of thousands of chemicals in US commerce.) And as the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. has pointed out, some companies don’t seem to take seriously enough their responsibility to provide prompt and detailed reports of accidental chemical releases.
On August 28, 2008, an explosion occurred at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virginia. The blast killed workers Bill Oxley and Barry Withrow and frightened local residents, some of whom reported seeing a red fireball in the vicinity of the plant. Company employees called 911, but Ward reported that they refused to give first responders information about what chemicals might have been involved with the explosion, which made it hard for local responders to address the situation appropriately. It finally emerged that the chemical involved the explosion was methyl isocyanate – the exact same substance that caused the Bhopal disaster.
Community members were outraged; political leaders demanded improvement and were told they’d been made. But a few months later in the same county, those concerned about a strange foam on the river behind Dow Chemical’s South Charleston plant were unable to get relevant details from the company in a timely manner. Ward got only vague statements from both Kanawha County’s emergency services director and from Dow.
While these incidents show that companies aren’t uniformly ready to give the public all the details it requests and deserves to know about chemical releases, Ward reported yesterday that residents of Institute, West Virginia will soon face less risk from methyl isocyanate:
Three months ago, Bayer CropScience, the plant’s current owner and operator, announced it was going to reduce its quarter-million-pound MIC stockpile by about 80 percent. It was a huge victory for Institute plant critics, and a concession Bayer made only under intense pressure from the public, West Virginia political leaders, Congress and the federal Chemical Safety Board.
Outrage and pressure can achieve some progress, but it’s far too slow. Twenty-five years after Bhopal, thousands of survivors and local residents are still waiting for justice, and millions of people around the world aren’t adequately informed about or protected from chemicals used near their homes. We need to do a better job with chemical safety, because the consequences of failure are tragic.