The Bhopal Disaster

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, water leaked into a tank containing methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Bhopal, India, pesticide plant of Union Carbide India, Ltd. The resulting runaway reaction vaporized an estimated 30 to 40 tons of MIC, releasing a massive toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas.45 The cloud drifted across Bhopal, a city of some 900,000 residents at that time. The estimates of casualties vary somewhat depending on the source. However, the dense slums that sprawled right up to the wall surrounding the plant meant that the Bhopal accident would have the highest death and injury rate of any industrial disaster yet recorded. The initial death toll was officially placed at 2500, but other estimates based on the sale of shrouds and cremation wood begin at 7000 (Table 8.7) (Mukerjee, 1995). The company that owned and ran the site, Union Carbide India Ltd., was a closely held company (50.9 percent) owned by the U.S. parent company, Union Carbide.

Sixteen years later, in February 2001, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide as a wholly owned subsidiary, purchasing 100 percent of its stock and consolidating its balance sheet. Dow Chemical management has gone to lengths to say that when it acquired Union Carbide it thoroughly investigated the matter and did not acquire with it any remaining liabilities with the stock purchase of the company. At the 2003 annual shareholder meeting, for instance, Dow Chemical CEO William S. Stavropoulos described Bhopal as a tragic bygone that is all but resolved in the courts, and for which the company is helpless to take any actions.

As a result of the acquisition, however, Dow has become an international target of protest and media scrutiny. The management's public denials of liability and responsibility are fueling the protest movement. Those denials may also prove to be misleading to investors in light of ongoing efforts to hold Union Carbide liable

45In addition, some reports suggest that hydrogen cyanide was also present. When methyl isocyanate is pyrolyzed at temperatures above 427°C, hydrogen cyanide is formed as a breakdown product. Union Carbide denied that cyanide gas was present, likely because the health effects of cyanide gas are more well known than methyl isocyanate and the company wished to reduce any potential liability. Doctors treating victims found that treatments used for addressing cyanide exposure were effective and eyewitnesses reported the small of "rotten almonds." Cyanide has an almond-like odor. See Lueck (1984), Ashford (1984), Mukerjee (1995), and, for a description of cyanide, see Center for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; ToxFAQs™ for Cyanide (Cianuro) September 1997; CAS# 74-90-8, 143-33-9, 151-50-8, 592-01-8, 544-92-3, 506-61-6, 460-19-5, 506-77-4.

TABLE 8.7. Bhopal Disaster Casualty Figures: Multiple Estimates

Initial Deaths

Initial Permanent Long-term Injuries Disabilities Mortality

Indian Government - ICMR Congressional Research

2500+ 2000+

50,000 14,400+

100,000 50,000

Service Claims filed with

600,000

16,000

Indian Government NGO estimates

7000-8000+

15,000-20,000

(Sources: Indian Center for Medical Research - ICMR, the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Lapierre D, Moro J., 200146)

for criminal charges and environmental remediation and to link Dow with UCC in the Indian courts.

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