Don't look back in anger
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As the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster approaches, Indian authorities should ensure that remediation of the site is finally completed, Paul Suff argues.
On the night of 2 December 1984, an explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, released a deadly gas cloud over the city with a population of 1.5 million. More than 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic substance, 500 times more poisonous than cyanide.
Official figures from the Madhya Pradesh state government put the immediate death toll at about 4,000, though other sources suggest at least double that number died within two weeks. The Indian Council of Medical Research said in 1994 that the toxins released by the explosion had killed more than 25,000. Bhopal remains the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Union Carbide, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemicals, maintains that the gas leak was caused by an act of sabotage, although former workers and independent observers blame safety cuts and management failures.
The 30th anniversary is being commemorated with the release of a new feature film, Bhopal: A prayer for rain. It stars Martin Sheen as the recently deceased Warren Anderson, who was chair and chief executive at Union Carbide at the time. The anniversary and film should act as a reminder of the potential risks to people and the environment from industrial sites, and to underline the need for good and effective regulation, including regular audits and inspection.
It should also make us think about the ongoing impacts. The site remains largely unremediated. Union Carbide says it spent $2 million cleaning up the site – including starting the construction of a secure landfill to hold the wastes from two onsite solar evaporation ponds, which are blamed for contaminating groundwater – before selling its stake in the Union Carbide India Limited, which operated the Bhopal plant, in 1994.
The state government took full control of the site in 1998. The Union Carbide website devoted to the disaster (bhopal.com) concedes: “What additional cleanup work, if any, has been undertaken since that time remains unclear.”
The failure to fully remediate the site means that people in the surrounding area continue to suffer. A group of survivors recently ended a hunger strike after Indian government officials confirmed that they would receive additional compensation and pledged to correct the numbers for those killed and the extent of injuries caused by the disaster.
The authorities should also commit to the speedy remediation of the whole site, including contaminated groundwater. That would be the most fitting tribute to those who died. We should also ensure such a disaster does not happen again.
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