The Bhopal Injustice

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This season marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the worst industrial accident in history, a tragedy that continues to unfold. In the early hours of December 3, 1984, at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, a large volume of water was introduced into a tank of methyl isocyanate, a chemical used in manufacturing pesticides. The ensuing reaction produced tons of noxious fumes that billowed out over the nearby population, which awoke to hell on earth. People fled in panic and confusion, eyes and lungs burning, unable to carry all their children, engulfed by the toxic cloud. Four thousand people died that night; thousands more died over the next few days. At least 150,000 were severely injured.

The precise cause of the incident remains unsettled. Union Carbide claimed that a disgruntled employee sabotaged the plant, pouring the water into the tank — but no such person has ever been identified. Local advocacy groups maintain instead that the water leaked in through a faulty valve, the result of dangerously lax safety standards and deteriorating conditions inside the facility. Several smaller leaks over the previous decade had killed or injured dozens of people, but the plant continued to operate as before. And company documents that have come to light since then suggest that officials were aware of the hazardous conditions but did nothing.

Union Carbide’s then-CEO, Warren Anderson, flew to India immediately, but when he was charged there with manslaughter, he fled the country. (In August 2009, an Indian court reissued the warrant for his arrest, but at the age of eighty-eight, it is quite unlikely that he will be extradited.) The Indian government sued Union Carbide, which settled out of court in 1999 for $470 million (with $2,200 distributed to families of the dead and about $550 going to injured survivors). A spokesman for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, said in 2002 that those payments are “plenty good enough for an Indian.”

For the survivors of Bhopal, the terrors of that night echo down the years. The abandoned facility, astonishingly, has never been cleaned up; it continues to contaminate the water and ground. Children — grandchildren, even — of the original survivors are being born with birth defects. Activists keep protesting for prosecutions and reparations, but Dow disclaims any responsibility for the accident. Yet by purchasing Union Carbide, Dow assumed not just its fiscal ledger but its moral one. This world cannot offer justice for so great a horror, but Bhopal’s survivors deserve from Dow an effort to ease the suffering caused by its subsidiary’s sins.

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "The Bhopal Injustice," The New Atlantis, Fall 2009/Winter 2010, p. 171.

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