On 3rd December 1984, not long after midnight, a runaway reaction in a pesticide factory released toxic gases which blew over the sleeping town of Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, India.
Many thousand people died that night, The official records report 3,787 deaths and 558,125 injuries but many organisations put the injury and death toll much higher.
This was the world’s worst industrial disaster.
The people of Bhopal received no warning on the night, but there had been many warning signs.
In 1981, a worker was exposed to phosgene and died 72 hours later.
In January 1982, a phosgene leak sent 24 workers to hospital.
In February 1982, an Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leak affected 18 workers.
In August 1982, a worker received in burns over 30 percent of his body after contact with liquid MIC.
In October 1982, there was another MIC leak. One worker suffered severe chemical burns and two others were severely exposed to the gases.
In the 1983 Operation Improvement Program savage cuts were imposed in staffing, maintenance and training.
Union leaders voiced concerns about safety. Union Carbide Corporation carried out a safety audit. A local journalist, Raj Keswani, repeatedly drew attention to safety issues.
It was decided to shut the plant down.
The last batch of MIC was distilled in October 1984.
On October 31st 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The resulting civil unrest across India led to curfews and postponement of operations.
It is still not known exactly what happened on the night of 2nd December 1984, but attempts were being made to process that final batch of intermediate MIC by transferring it from tank E610 in order to convert it into finished product.
Investigation suggests that somehow water entered the tank.
There are several theories as to how it might have happened:
- Backflow of water from a filter washing operation through a common vent
- Gradual water ingress over time leading to accelerating decomposition
- Mix up of nitrogen and water hoses during an attempted pressure transfer
- Sabotage by a disgruntled employee who added water deliberately through a hose
Once the water entered the tank, it reacted violently, causing forty tonnes of liquid to be released as toxic gases into the night sky above the sleeping town of Bhopal.
None of the multiple safety systems were operational: the refrigeration, the vent gas scrubber and the flare tower all disconnected. Alarms were sounded too late and were inaudible outside the factory.
The death toll was terrible. The injuries horrific. The compensation derisory. The lawsuits ongoing.
And thirty five years on the Bhopal factory still stands. Frozen in time. Decaying. Leaking. Leaching chemicals into the groundwater around the site.
It is scandal that the huge site has not been remediated and put to some new use that would benefit all the people of the stunningly beautiful and vibrant city of Bhopal.
But for any clean-up to be successful, it must be led from inside India and have support from the victim organisations.
Shouldn’t the people of Bhopal expect global support?
It’s time to wake up, mobilise and do the right thing.