Bhopal Gas Tragedy

What Happened and Why

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is a catastrophe that has no parallel in industrial history. In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984 a rolling wind carried a poisonous grey cloud past the walk of the Union Carbide C plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh , India. An estimated 8,000 or more people died (over three times the officially announced total), people whose hopes and dreams were ironically bound up with the technology and affluence the plant symbolised. About 300,000 more would suffer agonising injuries from the disastrous effects of the massive poisoning while none could say if future generations would be affected. Forty tons of toxic gases were released from Carbide's Bhopal plant and spread throughout the city. The cause was the contamination of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) storage tank No. 610 with water carrying catalytic material. The result was a nightmare that still has no end. Residents awoke to clouds of suffocating gas and began a desperate flight through the dark streets. No alarm ever sounded a warning and no evacuation plan was prepared. When victims arrived at hospitals breathless and blind, do doctors did not know how to treat them since Carbide had not provided emergency information. But it was only when the sun rose the next morning that the magnitude of the devastation was clear. Dead bodies of humans and animals blocked the streets, leaves turned black, the smell of burning chilli peppers lingered in the air. Responsible estimates suggest that as many as 10,000 may have died immediately. The precise number of deaths still remains a mystery. 2,000,00 were injured and 30,000 to 50,000 were too ill to ever return to their jobs. This is the Hiroshima of chemical industry.

In October 1982 a mixture of MIC, chloroform and hydrochloric acid escaped from the Bhopal plant endangering the neighbouring community and injuring a few workers. This incident made very clear the potential public risks but in spite of the insistence of Carbide officials for safety precautions there was still no action taken. All this, coupled with the series of accidents that occurred in the plant and the increasingly gloomier prospects for its turnaround, served as a signal for many well-trained and experienced engineers and operators to leave the Bhopal factory in search of more secure and satisfactory employment. Between one-half and two-thirds of the skilled engineers who were fully familiar with the plant right from the project stage and certainly since the commissioning, had left the Union Carbide Bhopal establishment before the accident.

MIC in gaseous form is heavier than air and has a tendency to settle down. In this form it is subject to wind dispersal. The geographical characteristics of the area would control the dispersal. At 11 PM on December 2, 1984 the pressure in the tank started building up till the safety valve opened. At that time, the carbaryl plant was stated to be working. The escaping MIC was released into the atmosphere. The leakage was between 12.45 am and 1.30 am. A gentle wind slowly moved the deadly cloud over an area of about 40 sq. km, thus causing a vast destruction of life. The suggestion of senior administrators like Mr. M N Buch that the plant should be located in a less populated area was ignored. Before he could take any action he was given marching orders and transferred to another post.

The issue of the danger posed by the pesticide plant to Bhopal was raised in the M. P. Assembly in December 1982. Mr. T S Viyogi, labour minister in the Arjun Singh government stated "A sum of Rs. 25 crore has been invested in this unit. The factory is not a small stone, which can be shifted elsewhere. There is no danger to Bhopal, nor will there ever be." Equally confident - rather over confident - was J. Mukund, Carbideís works manager, when he stated, "The gas leak just canít be from my plant. The plant is shut down. Our technology just canít go wrong., we just canít have such leaks." Once it was confirmed that the leak was indeed from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the chief medical officer denied that MIC was fatal, stressing that it was just a minor irritant. While the experts debated, people died like flies.

Senior management design and operate plants to maximise the inflow of money, while safety and maintenance are given much lower priority especially if a plant is losing money. Cost cutting almost always means lowering safety standards and increasing the risks of a serious accident, if not a catastrophe.

Investigations however revealed that before the tragedy there had not been a single year when a mishap had not occurred. On various occasions inquiries were ordered and subsequently forgotten. This showed that there was something wrong in the safety standards. In addition, the following were major contributors to the disaster:

  • Gradual but sustained erosion of good maintenance practices.
  • Declining quality of technical training of plant personnel, especially its supervisory staff.
  • Depleting inventories of vital spares.
  • An indiscriminate economy drive that starved the plant of necessary capital replacement and produced general staff demoralisation.
  • An exodus of some of the more experienced and able engineers and operators from the factory.
  • Last but not the least, increasing under manning of important work stations in many parts of the plant.

Together these factors combined to cause the multiple failures that underlay the calamitous accident which occurred on the night of December 2-3, 1984. The Bhopal disaster was the worst industrial accident in history.

 

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