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Bhopal disaster

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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It was caused by the accidental release of forty metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide pesticide plant located in the heart of the city of Bhopal, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The MIC leak killed thousands outright and injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000 others, at least 15,000 of whom died later from their injuries. Some sources give much higher fatality figures.

A November 2004 BBC investigation confirmed that the contamination is still active.

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Factors leading to the disaster

The Union Carbide plant had been established in 1969 and had expanded to produce carbaryl in 1979; MIC is an intermediate in carbaryl manufacture.

The accident was caused by the introduction of water into MIC holding tanks. The resulting reaction generated many large surges of toxic gas, forcing the emergency release of pressure. The gas escaped while the chemical 'scrubbers' which should have treated the gas were off-line for repairs. Investigations have revealed that several other safety procedures were bypassed (baffle plates to prevent water leaking into the tanks were omitted; tank refrigeration was offline; the flare tower that could burn off escaping gas was offline) and the standard of operations in the Indian plant did not match those at other Union Carbide plants. It was also alleged that these safety procedures were wilfully toned down as a part of "cost cutting operations" at the Indian plant that Union Carbide was involved in at that time. Recent documents that surfaced during a compensation claims case involving New York Federal District revealed that Union Carbide frequently exported "untested technology" to the Indian plant. After the release, the local doctors were not informed of the nature of the gas, thus hampering treatment, and basic disaster management measures (such as blocking all gaps with wet towels) were not planned for.

Union Carbide denies these allegations on its website dedicated to the tragedy. ( It cites a non-peer-reviewed investigation that concluded that a single employee secretly and deliberately introduced a large amount of water into the MIC tank by removing a meter and connecting a water hose directly to the tank through the metering port. Carbide claims such a large amount of water could not have found its way into the tank by accident, and safety systems were not designed to deal with intentional sabotage. UC says that the rest of the plant staff falsified numerous records to distance themselves from the incident, and that the Indian Government impeded its investigation and declined to prosecute the employee responsible, presumably because that would weaken its allegations of negligence against Union Carbide. Union Carbide has never publicly named or identified the employee it claims sabotaged its Bhopal plant.

The majority of deaths and serious injuries were related to pulmonary oedemas, but the gas caused a wide variety of other ailments.

Investigation and legal action against Union Carbide

In an out-of-court settlement reached on February 14, 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay USD $470 million for damages it caused in the Bhopal disaster. (The original lawsuit was for USD 3 billion.)

The CEO of Union Carbide at that time, Warren Anderson, who had retired by 1986, was declared a fugitive from law by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992 for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. Orders were passed to the Government of India to press for an extradition from the United States, with whom India had an extradition treaty in place. However, the demanded extradition never materialized. Many activists allege that the Indian government has hesitated to put forth a strong case of extradition to the United States, fearing backlash from foreign investors who have become more important players in the Indian economy following liberalization. A seemingly apathetic attitude from the US government, which has failed to pursue the case, has also led to strong protests in the past, most notably by Greenpeace.

A plea by India's Central Bureau of Investigation to dilute the charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence has since been dismissed by the Indian courts. To date, Anderson is still an absconder before the Indian courts and faces charges that if proven may result in imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Meanwhile, very little of the money from the settlement reached with Union Carbide went to the survivors, and people in the area feel betrayed not only by Union Carbide (and chairman Warren Anderson), but also by their own politicians. On the anniversary of the tragedy, effigies of Anderson and politicians are burnt. In July 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to pay to victims, and families of the dead, the US$330 million remaining in the compensation fund.

Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary, which had operated the Bhopal plant, to an Indian battery manufacturer in 1994. The Dow Chemical Company purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt. Dow has publicly stated several times that the Union Carbide settlement payments have already fulfilled Dow's financial responsibility for the disaster.

Ongoing contamination

Ownership issues have led to a stalemate on the issue of cleaning up the plant and its environs of hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste, which has been left untouched. Environmentalists have warned that the waste is a potential minefield in the heart of the city, and the resulting contamination may lead to decades of slow poisoning, and diseases affecting the nervous system, liver and kidneys in humans. Studies have shown that the rates of cancer and other ailments are higher in the region since the event. Activists have demanded that Dow clean up this toxic waste, and have pressed the government of India to demand more money from Dow.

In an investigation broadcast on BBC Radio 5 on November 14, 2004, it was reported that the site is still contaminated with 'thousands' of metric tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene hexachloride and mercury, held in open containers or loose on the ground. Some areas are reportedly so polluted that anyone entering the area for more than ten minutes is likely to lose conciousness. Rainfall causes run-off, polluting local wells and boreholes, and the results of tests undertaken on behalf of the BBC by accredited water analysis laboratories in the United Kingdom reveal pollution levels in borehole water 500 times the legal maximum in that country. Statistical surveys of local residents, with a control population in a similarly poor area away from the plant, are reported to reveal higher levels of various diseases around the plant.

2004 hoax

"Jude Finisterra" appears on BBC World to accept full responsibility.
"Jude Finisterra" appears on BBC World to accept full responsibility.

On December 3, 2004, the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, a man claiming to be a Dow representative named "Jude Finesterra" was interviewed on the BBC. He claimed that the company had agreed to clean up the site and compensate those harmed in the incident. (video ( Immediately afterward, Dow's share price fell 4.2% in 23 minutes, for a loss of $2 billion in market value.[1] ( Dow quickly issued a statement saying that they had no employee by that name —that he was an impostor, not affiliated with Dow, and that his claims were a hoax. BBC broadcast a correction and an apology. The statement was widely carried. [2] (

"Jude Finisterra" was actually Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the activist prankster group The Yes Men. In 2002, The Yes Men issued a phony press release ( explaining why Dow refused to take responsibility for the disaster and started up a website,, designed to look like the Dow website but give what they felt was a more accurate cast on the events. In 2004, a producer for BBC News emailed them through the website requesting an interview, which they gladly obliged. [3] (

Taking credit for the prank in an interview on Democracy Now!, Bichlbaum explains how his fake name was derived: "Jude is the patron saint of impossible causes and Finisterra means the end of the Earth". He explained that he settled on this approach (taking responsibility) because it would show people precisely how Dow could help the situation as well as likely garnering major media attention in the US, which had largely ignored the disaster's anniversaries, when Dow attempted to correct the statement. [4] (

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