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THMG107 – Bhopal Case Study

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In this episode, Bob reviews a case study done in Bhopal, India, after the chemical disaster that occurred there in 1984. Check it out for yourself here!

Complete Show Notes

2:10 Overview of the Bhopal Disaster

  • On the evening of December 2-3, 1984, more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a pesticides plant in Bhopal, India
  • This immediately killed over 3,800 people and caused significant morbidity and premature death for thousands more
  • Deemed the worst industrial accident in history
  • Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was responsible and tried to shirk their financial and legal responsibilities
  • Eventually reached a settlement with the Indian government through the country’s supreme court – also accepted moral responsibility
  • Paid out $470 million U.S. dollars in compensation – this is very low due to the number of people exposed who suffered long-term damage
  • Laid bare the need for worldwide enforceable environmental safety standards, preventative strategies to avoid similar situations in the future, and industrial disaster preparedness
  • Since the disaster, India has experienced rapid industrialization – some changes have been made for the better, but many environmental issues related to industrialization remain

3:25 A Little History

  • In the 1970s, the Indian government-initiated policies that encouraged foreign companies to invest in local industries
  • Union Carbide built a pesticides plant to manufacture Sevin, which is commonly used around Asia
  • As part of the deal, the government insisted that a large part of the financing come from local shareholders
  • The government itself had a 22% stake in the ICC’s subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)
  • Chose Bhopal due to its central location and access to the country’s infrastructure – area itself was not zoned for hazardous industry
  • Plant was initially approved only for the formulation of pesticides from component chemicals, which were imported from UCC in relatively small quantities
  • Competition from the chemical industry led UCIL to implement backwards integration, which is the manufacture of raw materials and intermediates from formulation of the final product in one facility – far more sophisticated and hazardous
  • In 1984, the plant was manufacturing Sevin at one-quarter of its production capacity due to the decreased demand for pesticides
  • Local managers were directed to close the plant and prepare for sale in July of 1984 – couldn’t find a buyer, so they made plans to dismantle the facility’s key production units for shipment to another developing country
  • In the meantime, the facility continued to operate with safety equipment and procedures far below the standards at its sister plant in the U.S.
  • Local government was aware of these problems but were reticent to penalize the struggling industry and feared the economic effects of losing such a large employer

5:45 The Lead-Up

  • At 11 PM on December 2, an operator at the plant noticed a small MIC leak and increasing pressure inside a storage tank
  • The vent gas scrubber (a safety device) for that tank had been turned off 3 weeks prior
  • A faulty valve had let 1 ton of water for cleaning internal pipes to mix with 40 tons of MIC
  • A 30-ton refrigeration unit that normally served as a safety component to cool the MIC storage had been drained of its coolant for use in another part of the plant
  • Pressure and heat from the vigorous exothermic reaction in the tank continued to build – remember that the gas flare safety system wasn’t working and hadn’t been for some time

6:35 The Release

  • At around 1 AM on December 3, the safety valve gave way and released a huge cloud of MIC gas into the air
  • An estimated 3,800 people died immediately, most of whom lived in the poor slum colonies adjacent to the plant
  • Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of patients in need of treatment – plus, they didn’t know which gas they were dealing with and what the effects were
  • An estimated 10,000 people died within the following few days, and 15-20,000 people died prematurely over the next 20 years due to their exposure to MIC
  • Indian government reported that over 500,000 people were exposed to the gas
  • Table 1 shows the early and late effects of the MIC exposure

8:05 The Aftermath

  • UCC began attempts to disassociate themselves from responsibility for the gas leak almost immediately – principal tactic was shifting culpability to UCIL
  • Also fabricated scenarios involving a sabotage by a previously-unknown extremist group and disgruntled employees, but these were quickly disproven
  • On December 7, the first multibillion-dollar lawsuit was filed in the U.S. – marked the beginning of years of legal machinations involving the disaster where the actual victims were largely ignored
  • In 1985, the Indian government enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act to ensure claims resulting from the accident would be dealt with speedily and equitably – made the government the sole representative of the victims in legal proceedings both in and outside of India
  • All legal cases were taken outside of the U.S. and moved into Indian courts, which was much to the detriment of the injured parties
  • UCC paid $470 million U.S. dollars to the Indian government to be distributed among the victims – this was the full and final settlement
  • By the end of October 2003, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 of those injured and 15,310 survivors of those who were killed – average amount that went to families of the dead was $2,200
  • To this day, UCC hasn’t officially stated what was in the toxic cloud that engulfed the city
  • Degraded MIC contains hydrogen cyanide, and it was clear by the blood and viscera of some of the victims that they’d been exposed – UCC vigorously denies there was no hydrogen cyanide to this day
  • Plus, many people responded well to the administration of sodium thiosulfate, which is an effective therapy for cyanide poisoning, but not for MIC exposure
  • UCC initially suggested the use of sodium thiosulfate, but then withdrew that recommendation – created suspicion over whether they were trying to cover up what was actually in the gas leak
  • UCC shut down the plant after the disaster, but failed to clean up the industrial site completely – it continues to leak several toxic chemicals that has led to dangerously contaminated water

12:00 Lessons Learned

  • Reveals that rapid industrialization in developing countries must be accompanied by adequate safety regulations – otherwise, this sort of thing could happen again
  • Also demonstrated that seemingly local problems of industrial hazards and contamination are often tied to a global market dynamic
  • International standards could provide norms for measuring the performance of individual companies engaged in hazardous activities – corporations must be held accountable
  • National governments and international agencies should focus on widely-applicable techniques for corporate responsibility in accident prevention – prevention should include risk reduction in plant location, design, and safety legislation
  • Existing public health infrastructure must be taken into account when industries choose sites for hazardous materials production plants – Bhopal was woefully underprepared for the disaster

14:25 1984 to Today

  • Environmental awareness and activism in India has increased significantly since the disaster
  • The Environment Protection Act was passed in 1986 – created the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) and strengthened the country’s commitment to the environment
  • Established importance of integrating environmental concerns into commerce and industry decisions
  • However, policies geared towards developing the country’s economy have taken precedence over environmental concerns

15:25 UCC Today

  • UCC has shrunk to one-sixth of its size since the disaster in an attempt to restructure and divest itself
  • This helped them avoid a hostile takeover and allowed them to place a significant amount of the company’s assets out of reach of the victims
  • At the same time, many of UCC’s shareholders and top executives reaped bountiful profits
  • UCC still operates under Dow Chemical and STILL states on its website that the disaster was caused by deliberate sabotage

16:00 Positive Effects of the Disaster

  • British chemical company ICI – whose Indian subsidiary manufactured pesticides – increased attention to health, safety, and environmental issues
  • DuPont attempted to export a nylon plant from the U.S. to India for over a decade – tried unsuccessfully for two different locations and eventually gave up

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