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Return to Bhopal
The Crime of Union Carbide
by N. D. JAYAPRAKASH

The inhabitants of Bhopal became victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster when on the night of 02/03 December 1984 a huge toxic plume engulfed about two-thirds of the city for over two hours before dissipating. The highly poisonous gases had leaked due to exothermic reactions that took place in an underground storage tank, which contained nearly 41 tonnes of methyl-isocyanate (MIC), an extremely volatile and noxious chemical. The said storage tank had been installed at the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – a U.S. multinational company, which then held 50.9 per cent of shares of UCIL. The immediate human death toll, according to official figures, was around 2500 while the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) after a preliminary survey subsequently declared that residents of 36 of the 56 municipal wards of Bhopal, i.e., approximately about 600,000 of the nearly 900,000 people of the city, may have suffered injuries in varying degree. It is estimated that the death toll has since gone above 20,000. The impact of the disaster on flora and fauna in the affected area was equally staggering.

On 03.12.1984, the SHO, Hanumangunj Police Station, Bhopal, who observed people dying around the UCIL plant due to escape of some poisonous gases from the factory, registered a case suo moto under section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He arrested five officers of the plant – presently accused Nos.5 to 9 – including J.Mukund, the Works Manager and S.P.Choudhary, the production Manager. On 05.12.1984, the Government of India (GOI) set up a scientific committee headed by Dr.S.Varadarajan, the then Director General of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to study the scientific and technical aspects of the disaster and to prepare a report. On 06.12.1984, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Government instituted a probe through a judicial commission known as the ‘Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage (1984) Inquiry Commission’ headed by Justice N.K.Singh – a then sitting judge of the MP High Court.

On 07.12.1984, Warren Anderson (Chairman – UCC), Keshub Mahindra (Chairman – UCIL), and V.P.Gokhale (Managing Director – UCIL) – presently accused Nos. 1, 2 and 3 respectively – were arrested on arrival at Bhopal. Several cases were registered against them under sections 304 Part-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 304-A, 426 (causing mischief), 429 (causing mischief by killing or maiming animals), 278 (making atmosphere noxious to health), 284 (negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance), and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC. However, after detaining him at the posh Union Carbide Guest House for barely six hours, Anderson, was released on bail of Rs.25,000. He was immediately flown to Delhi by a State Government aircraft and allowed to leave the country supposedly on condition that he would appear in court whenever summoned. Subsequently, accused Nos. 2 and 3 were granted bail by the MP High Court on 13.12.1984. Accused Nos. 5 to 9 were also granted bail by Sessions Court of Bhopal on 15.12.1984. (All the accused have been out on bail ever since.)

In January 1985, the ICMR undertook the task of identifying the toxic gaseous products and of studying their effects on human health. For coordinating some twenty-odd medical research projects, the ICMR also established the Bhopal Gas Disaster Research Centre (BGDRC) at Bhopal. During January/February 1985, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in collaboration with the MP Government and several schools of social work from neighbouring states (with over 500 volunteers), undertook the task of carrying out a comprehensive house-to-house survey in the 36-gas affected municipal wards of Bhopal to identify the victims and to collate necessary data. Furthermore, on 08.08.1985, the GOI set up the “Scientific Commission for Continuing Studies On Effects of Bhopal Gas Leakage On Life Systems” headed by Dr.C.R.Krishna Murti, the former Director of the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR), for conducting studies on the toxic effects of the Bhopal disaster on life systems.

Immediately after the disaster, scores of organizations and individuals from across the country arrived in Bhopal out of concern for the fate of the victims and for offering assistance in the relief and rehabilitation work; a team from the Delhi Science Forum (DSF) was among them. DSF was also the first organisation to bring out a report on the disaster.[1] According to its findings, there was little doubt that the U.S. multinational company had installed obsolete and unreliable safety systems for its Bhopal plant. What was most shocking was that much prior to the disaster even the sub-standard safety systems at the plant had been shut off for reasons of economy or for maintenance. The Report pointed out that economy measures were also responsible for a manning policy, which depleted the plant’s experienced and trained personnel, and led to stationing of untrained personnel in critical areas of the plant.[2] Moreover, unlike UCC’s parent plant at Institute, West Virginia, USA, computerized monitoring and control systems had not been provided at the Bhopal plant. All these discrepancies persisted despite the fact that the MIC unit at Bhopal began its operation in 1980, while the MIC unit at Institute had been in operation since 1966.

What has subsequently become evident is that even if all the safety systems were in working order, a major disaster may not have been averted because the safety systems in place at the Bhopal plant were under-designed in relation to the amount of highly toxic material (MIC) stored there. That is, unlike those in its parent plant at Institute, the safety systems that had been installed at Bhopal were not designed for total containment.[3] Moreover, unlike the Bhopal plant, the Institute plant not only had a computerised automatic warning and alarm system in place but also had an emergency evacuation plan for the population of the town. These facts point to the adoption of double safety standards on the part of the UCC management, who had designed and set-up the Bhopal plant.

Violation of Safety Norms

UCC’s own brochure on MIC had clearly stated that:

(1) “Mythyl isocyanate (MIC) is reactive, toxic, volatile, and flammable” (p.1);

(2) it “is a hazardous material by all means of contact”;

(3) it “is a poison by inhalation”;

(4) it “should also be regarded as an oral and contact poison”; and

(5) “Stringent precautions must be observed to eliminate any possibility of human contact with methyl isocyanate.” (p.25)[4]

The extremely toxic and reactive nature of MIC required that the storage system was safe and its related instrumentation and control systems were of high reliability. The instructions in the said brochure in this regard specifically said:

“Maintain a tanks’ temperature below 15°C (about 60oF) and preferably at about 0°C (32°F). Equip a storage tank with dual temperature indicators that will sound an alarm and flash warning lights if the temperature of the stored materials rises abnormally.” (p.7)

It also said: “Keep the storage system and transfer lines free of contaminants.”(p.8) This was because: “Trace quantities of the contaminants are sufficient to initiate reaction…. The heat evolved can generate a reaction of explosive violence. Water reacts exothermically to produce heat and carbon dioxide.” (p.9) Therefore,

“…bulk systems must be maintained at low temperature. With bulk systems, contamination is more likely than with tightly sealed drums. The potential loss is much greater, too. The low temperature in a bulk system will not eliminate the possibility of a violent reaction, if contamination occurs. It will, however, increase the time available for detection of the reaction and safe disposal of the materials before the reaction rate reaches a dangerous speed.” (p.10) [5]

UCIL’s “Operating Manual Part-I – Methyl Isocyanate Unit” had also issued a fore-warning as follows:

“…it must be foremost in everybody’s mind that there is a probability of injury or accident round the corner. But these can be avoided if all are safety conscious and follow safety procedures strictly. Safety is our prime need. All chemicals like MIC, phosgene, HCl, CO, Chlorine, MMA, chloroform and caustic soda etc. however hazardous they are, can be handled safely by knowing the correct procedure. There is a correct way of handling them and there is “No Short Cut”. Any carelessness in operation will endanger you, your colleagues and everybody around you.” [6]

UCIL’s “Operating Manual Part-II – Methyl Isocyanate Unit” had stipulated stern safety norms for maintenance of “MIC Storage Tanks” as follows:

“(iv) Keep circulation of storage tanks contents continuously ‘ON’ through the refrigeration unit and maintain tank temperature below 5ºC. Set temperature instrument (TIA) to sound alarm at 11ºC.

(v) Watch for differential temperature instrument (RDRA) provided in the MIC make line. It will sound an alarm if the temperature difference between the probe provided near the storage tank and the probe near the MRS condenser, in MIC make line, exceeds 5ºC. Immediately divert the MIC make to the dump tank and take corrective action after establishing the reason….” [7]

However, contrary to the stringent requirements of keeping the MIC storage tank definitely below 5ºC, it is an admitted fact that over 85 tonnes of MIC had been stored under ambient temperature (i.e., above 15ºC and up to 40ºC) with the full knowledge of the concerned UCC/UCIL officials from June 1984 onwards. Therefore, it is amply evident that all the accused officials of UCC and UCIL had prior knowledge of the disastrous consequences of shutting off the refrigeration system in complete violation of stipulated safety norms; they cannot now pretend that they did not know that those safety norms had to be “stringently” observed.

The instructions in the said UCC’s brochure and UCIL’s safety manuals were unambiguous about the stringent safety precautions that were to be observed while storing and handling MIC. But, neither were adequate steps taken to prevent entry of foreign bodies (which act as reactive agents or as catalyst that trigger highly volatile reactions) into the MIC storage tanks nor were appropriate instrumentation systems and personnel in place to monitor and forewarn about any unusual pressure and temperature build-up in the storage tanks at the Bhopal plant. Moreover, the three critical safety systems – i.e., (1) the refrigeration unit (for keeping MIC “preferably at about 0°C (32°F)” so as to retard volatility); (2) the vent gas scrubber unit (VGS, for neutralising any escaping toxic material by chemical treatment); and (3) the flare tower (for burning off toxic gases in case of any accidental release) – had all been either shut off or were under repair at the time of the disaster. No stand-by systems were in place for use during breakdown or routine maintenance. These facts point to criminal negligence on the part of the concerned UCC/UCIL officials who did not take adequate precautions to prevent the disaster despite having prior knowledge of not only the highly hazardous nature of MIC but also that the pesticide factory was situated very close to thickly populated human habitations. UCC itself confirmed most of these facts in its Report, which was prepared by UCC’s Investigation Team that had visited Bhopal soon after the disaster to inquire into the circumstances that led to the gas leak.

UCC’s Report

According to UCC’s own Report, on the night of 2/3.12.1984, all the critical safety systems at the Bhopal plant had either been shut off or were dysfunctional:

(1) “The VGS had been removed from an operating mode to a standby mode on October 23, 1984, after the MIC unit was shut off with a total MIC inventory of 183,000 pounds [approx. 85,000 kgs.]” (p.11);

(2) “Prior to the incident, the flare tower had been removed from service for maintenance work and was not operating at the time of the incident” (p.11); and

(3) “The temperature of MIC in Tank 610 before the incident was at 15º to 20ºC as compared to the requirement of about 0ºC. The lower temperature would have retarded the reaction rates and considerably extended the time available for corrective action. The refrigeration system provided to cool the MIC in the storage tanks had been made non-operational in June, 1984.”(p.23) [8]

It may be noted that the refrigeration system was shutoff at the peak of summer when the maximum temperature in Bhopal usually crosses 40ºC. For the next five months – till the time of the disaster – over 85 tonnes of MIC had been stored in a highly dangerous way in total contravention of the prescribed safety norms. Knowing that “bulk [MIC storage] systems must be maintained at low temperature”, to act in a manner that patently violated UCC’s own basic safety norms was absolutely criminal. It seems rather strange that for five months UCE (Hong Kong) and UCC (USA) were unaware that the most critical safety system was not in operation at the MIC unit of the Bhopal plant, a plant which was storing large amounts of extremely hazardous MIC and a plant over which they exercised managerial control. [9] The subsequent shutting off of the VGS and the dismantling of the flare tower only compounded the problem. Even assuming that the UCIL management had acted on their own and had not informed its regional and global headquarters about the shutting off of the safety systems, what prevented UCC (USA) from alerting its subsidiary unit in Bhopal about the warning it received on 11.09.1984 about the possibility of a “runaway reaction” in bulk MIC storage systems?[10]

“It can’t happen here!”

After the UCC Investigation Team had completed its presentation at the said press conference, Jackson Browning, UCC’s Vice-President for Health, Safety, and Environmental Affairs also addressed the press. He confined himself to the question of safety of the MIC operation at UCC’s plant at Institute, West Virginia, USA, which was closed down immediately after the Bhopal disaster.[11] The UCC’s Vice-president stated the following regarding the Institute plant’s eighteen-year record of safe operation:

“Could the same thing happen here? That’s the question people asked in December, and the question that many are still asking. We said ‘no’ in December based on our experience at Institute, our understanding of the process, and our confidence in our safety systems and procedures. Now, after the investigation, we are even more certain of our answer based on comprehensive analyses of what happened in the tank in India. We can confidently say: it can’t happen here.”[12]

Jackson Browning then went on to add:

“What if somehow the unthinkable happened, and contamination of the magnitude that occurred at Bhopal were to happen at Institute? What would happen then? First, I’ll talk about the underground storage tanks. We would get a reaction, but a controlled reaction. The reason is that the temperature of stored MIC is always maintained below 5 degrees centigrade – and when I say always, I mean precisely that – the temperature is never allowed to go above 5 degrees, and it is normally kept below zero degrees centigrade. So an operator checking instrumentation would note a rise in temperature soon after water entered the tank. In any case, within an hour after the introduction of water into the storage tank, the high temperature alarm would alert operators to the problem. They would put on full refrigeration and prepare to get rid of the liquid [MIC]. If refrigeration failed to keep the temperature of the liquid under 5 degrees centigrade, operators would begin pumping the liquid at top pump capacity of 60,000 pounds an hour to the emergency vent scrubber. The MIC would be completely destroyed in the scrubber before the temperature and the pressure in the tank increased sufficiently to open the safety valve.”

Furthermore, Browning said:

“But suppose that for some reason the operators are unable to transfer the MIC to the emergency vent scrubber? Temperatures in the tank would continue to rise and eventually reach boiling point [39.1oC].About four to five hours after the water entered the tank, the safety valve vent line to the scrubber would open. The quantity of gas that would be vented from the storage tank is well within the capability of the emergency vent scrubber and flare to destroy…. So when we said that a Bhopal type situation is inconceivable at institute, we had good cause…. In other words, we are talking about a well-run, very safe operation. We have in the MIC operation at Institute an extremely well-designed and well-engineered process, and an extremely well-run organization of skilled managers, supervisors and operators, with a demonstrated commitment to safety.”[13]

The system operated safely for 18 years at Institute, while at Bhopal the system crashed even before completing 5 years of operation! In other words, a Bhopal type situation “can’t happen here” and was “inconceivable at Institute” precisely because the safety systems that had been installed at Institute was far superior to that one that had been installed at Bhopal. The MIC stored at Institute was almost always maintained below zero-degree centigrade and was never allowed to go above 5°C under any circumstances. Even if it ever did, there was the high temperature alarm set at 5°C in place to alert the operators for taking corrective steps. Whereas in the Bhopal plant:

“The contents of the tank were being stored at ambient temperature, which varies approximately from +15°C to +40°C at Bhopal. The temperature of MIC in the storage tanks for most part of the year was higher than the high temperature alarm setting, i.e. +11°C. Indeed the temperature of the material in the tank was higher than the maximum of the range of the temperature transmitter, i.e. +25°C. In such circumstances the actual temperature was not known and the transmitter was of no value. Further, provision of ‘rate of rise in temperature’ alarm would have invited the operator’s attention to the start of such a reaction. No such provision was made.”[14]

At the Institute plant, an emergency high capacity scrubber (VGS) remained in operation and could neutralize MIC at the maximum rate of 60,000 pounds per hour. [15] At Bhopal, the installed low capacity scrubber (VGS) could neutralize MIC at the maximum rate of 21,000 pounds per hour [16] and even that service could not be utilized in time, as it was not in operation mode at the time of the disaster. At Institute, the flare always remained in operation to take care of any emergency. At Bhopal, the

“flare had been out of service for a month, in violation of Indian air pollution regulations. The flare pilot light was routinely extinguished when the plant was not operating, even with large amounts of MIC stored”! [17]

What else does all these gross violations of safety precautions prove other than the adoption of double safety standards on the part of the UCC management, which had overall control over the Bhopal plant?

Early warnings

The pesticide unit for manufacturing “SEVIN” (the brand name of one of the pesticides marketed by UCC) was commissioned at the Bhopal plant in 1977. It was initially operated by importing MIC (which was one of the basic chemical ingredients for manufacturing the pesticide) from the U.S. MIC was shipped to Bombay (Mumbai) in 200 litre high quality stainless steel drums and was transported to Bhopal by road. Ever since operation of the SEVIN unit began, chemical accidents became a common feature there. On 24.11.1978, there was a huge fire in the storage area of alpha-naphthol (another chemical ingredient for manufacturing “SEVIN”), which could be controlled only after ten hours. The fire caused huge loss to the company. [18]

Production of MIC commenced at Bhopal in February 1980. On 25.12.1981, plant operator Mohammed Ashraf Khan was killed after being exposed four days earlier to a leak of phosgene gas (a highly toxic chemical ingredient for producing MIC). The UCIL management tried to shift the blame for his death on to Ashraf Khan himself by claiming that he had ignored the necessary safety precautions while carrying out repairs on one of the phosgene pipelines. However, the workers alleged that it was disregard for even basic safety procedures on the part of the head of the production department, which had resulted in Asraf Khan’s death. On 09.02.1982, another phosgene gas leak caused 16 workers to struggle between life and death for several days. UCC (USA) had first hand knowledge of the accident, because senior executives of the company were visiting the plant on the day the accident occurred.

Due to rising incidents of accidents, a “Safety Week” was organised from 10 to 16 April 1982 at the Bhopal plant during which, according to workers’ union leader Hattim Jariwala, at least 10 accidents were reported. [19] Following the recent spate of accidents, UCC (USA) was forced to send a team of safety experts to India to carry out an Operational Safety Survey of the Carbon Monoxide, MIC and SEVIN units. In their confidential report, the UCC team, which carried out the survey in May 1982, had warned that a leak could occur due to “equipment failure, operation problems or maintenance problems.”[20] However, UCC’s “Safety Survey” team did not comment on the basic design defects in the safety systems or on the operational irregularities there, including the fact that the refrigeration unit was kept shut most of the time and was operated only intermittently at the time of transfer of MIC from the tank into the SEVIN pot.

It was Raajkumar Keswani, a Bhopal based editor and publisher of a Hindi weekly titled “Report”, who sounded the earliest clear warning of an impending catastrophe in Bhopal. In the lead article titled “Please Save This City”, which was published on 17.09.1982, Keswani tried to warn the residents of Bhopal of the imminent danger from the UCIL plant and about the possibility of a genocide being unleashed at Bhopal. Two weeks later, on 01.10.1982, Keswani published yet another warning in the same weekly with the headline: “Bhopal you are sitting on the mouth of a volcano!” But, because UCIL had such pervasive influence in Bhopal at that time, very few people were willing to heed Keswani’s unequivocal warnings. Yet the alarm that Keswani had raised was timely. On 05.10.1982, MIC did escape from a broken valve and had seriously injured four workers. People living in nearby colonies also experienced burning sensation in the eyes and had breathing trouble, because for the first time toxic gases had leaked into their homes. The residents ran away to save their lives and returned only after several hours. Luckily the leak was controlled in time before it caused further damage.[21]

Management’s Gross Indifference

The rising sense of insecurity forced Shahnawaz Khan, a Bhopal based lawyer, to serve a legal notice on the UCIL management on 04.03.1983 complaining about the danger, which the UCIL plant posed to the lives of the workers at the plant, to the population living in the nearby areas and to the environment. In his written reply to the notice sent by Shahnawaz Khan, UCIL’s Works Manager, J.Mukund, on 29.03.1983 stated the following:

“The various allegations made in your notice are baseless and have been made by you out of ignorance of our factory operations. Our pesticide complex at Bhopal like any such complex in the world is equipped with sophisticated devises for handling various types of chemicals in our manufacturing process or any hazardous incident in the course of manufacturing operations and all precautions are taken for safety of persons working in the factory as also those living in the vicinity…. In fact, we have taken appropriate precautions with a view to ensure that no pollution is caused by our pesticide complex and your allegation that the persons living in the various colonies near to the industrial area remain under constant threat and danger is absolutely baseless.”[22]

UCIL’s Works Manager, J.Mukund had made tall claims: (1) that “all precautions are taken for safety of persons working in the factory as also those living in the vicinity”; and (2) that “your allegation that the persons living in the various colonies near to the industrial area remain under constant threat and danger, is absolutely baseless”. Despite making such self-righteous assertions, Mukund, who is currently accused No.5, had the temerity to shut off all the three critical safety systems of the MIC unit at Bhopal with or without the apparent knowledge of UCE (Hong Kong) and/or of UCC (USA). He had shut off the refrigeration system as a cost-cutting measure in June 1984 at the peak of summer when the MIC unit was continuing to produce MIC. He had shut off the VGS in October 1984 soon after the MIC unit had stopped production after 85 tonnes of highly toxic MIC were stored in the MIC storage tanks. He then dismantled the flare tower for repairs. These highly callous and criminally irresponsible steps were taken in deliberate violation of all prescribed safety norms for handling MIC.

That was not all. On 16.06.1984, Raajkumar Keshwani again tried to warn the people of Bhopal about the impending danger from the UCIL plant through a lengthy article in ‘Jansatta’, a leading Hindi national daily, which too went unheeded. On 24.08.1984, another workers’ union leader, R.K.Yadav, made a written complaint to the Works Manager, UCIL, regarding air pollution and noise levels inside the undertaking. The union leader, in his complaint, stated the following:

“We have complained so many times against the rising pollution of air and noise in different departments of our factory…it is increasing day by day in uncontrolled manner…. It is known to you very well that some chemicals in our factory are so dangerous and helpful [sic] to develop chronic disease, if we work in such atmosphere for longer time and few chemicals can kill any person while taking minor exposure…. We request your good office to look into the subject matter and take appropriate steps…”

In his written reply to the above complaint, which was sent on the same day, the Works Manager, J.Mukund, stated the following:

“We are surprised to receive your letter dated 24.8.84 on the above subject…. As you must be aware, all our units are regularly monitored and the air quality at all places is within the internationally accepted standards laid down for the chemicals that we handle. The only exceptions may be of a temporary nature when there is a mechanical breakdown or some other abnormal situation…. It is the policy of this company to provide a safe and healthy working environment for all our employees. Chronic exposure to chemicals is prevented by proper engineering and personal protective equipment is provided to take care of abnormal situations…. You are, therefore, requested to refrain from making vague and general complaints which have no basis.”

The Works Manager, J.Mukund, does not seem to have any compunction in making false claims with a straight face. After shutting off the crucial refrigeration system of the MIC unit in June 1984, Mukund continues to claim that: “It is the policy of this company to provide a safe and healthy working environment for all our employees”! Moreover, despite being fully aware that the safety systems that were installed at the MIC Unit were under-designed in relation to its production and storage capacity as well as in comparison to the safety systems that had been installed at UCC’s parent plant at Institute, USA, Mukund was still claiming that: “Chronic exposure to chemicals is prevented by proper engineering”! Instead, he warned the workers’ union leader “to refrain from making vague and general complaints which have no basis”!

On 11.09.1984, the report of the safety survey carried out from 09 to 13 July 1984 at UCC’s premier plant at Institute, West Virginia, USA, was submitted to the UCC management. The UCC’s team of experts who conducted the survey pointed out in their confidential report a particularly grave danger: that water might contaminate the MIC in the unit storage tanks and start a runaway reaction. They stated in their report that:

“There is a concern that a runaway reaction could occur in one of the MIC unit storage tanks and that response to such a situation would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tank. This stems from a combination of situations and possibilities, including: a) Block operation of the MIC II unit can result in the unit storage tanks being used for relatively long term storage, as opposed to the rather transient operation when the unit is running. One consequence of this is that the tanks tend to get less attention and be sampled less frequently than they do while being used exclusively as make tanks, with the resulting higher probability of a contamination going undetected for a relatively long period of time….”[23]

The grave danger that lay ahead at the Institute plant, about which UCC’s team of expert had forewarned the UCC management, was exactly the same danger that ultimately led to the disaster at Bhopal. The problem had been precisely identified by the UCC survey team; according to them when MIC unit storage tanks are “used for relatively long term storage…. the tanks tend to get less attention” and are “sampled less frequently…. resulting in higher probability of a contamination going undetected for a relatively long period of time….” While remedial work was carried out within a month at the Institute plant, the Bhopal plant was left to its fate.

Towards Disaster

The shutting off of the refrigeration system of the MIC unit in June 1984 signaled the beginning of the journey towards disaster. The crucial subsequent developments were as follows. According to UCIL:

“…from 22nd October 1984, the MIC manufacturing unit was shutdown because sufficient quantities of MIC had been manufactured and stored in the storage tanks for manufacture of SEVIN and further production of MIC was not necessary…. On 22ndOctober 1984, at the time of shut down of the MIC Plant there was 41 MT of MIC stored in Tank No. 610 and 43 tonnes of MIC stored in Tank No. 611. A small quantity of approx. one tonne of off-specification MIC had been stored in Tank No. 619, which was a standby tank. Between 22nd October 1984 and 24th November 1984, the SEVIN unit was also not operated. Production in the SEVIN unit was commenced on 24th November 1984, and it was continuing till 2nd December 1984, the day of the accident. During this time MIC from Tank No. 611 was being used for manufacture of SEVIN.”[24]

UCIL’s version of the sequence of events was not the complete story. The Varadarajan Committee, which was set up by the Government of India on 05.12.1984 to investigate the causes of the disaster, has disclosed another important piece of information:

“As per operating practice, MIC in the storage tank was normally kept under nitrogen pressure of the order of 1kg/cm2g. Reportedly till 21st October, the pressure in tank 610 was maintained at 1.25kg/cm2g…. The nitrogen pressure in the tank is also utilised to transfer MIC from the storage tank to the Sevin unit. As liquid material is transferred, the gas pressure in the tank would also show a gradual reduction….The tank would need to be pressurised again to a higher value by admitting high purity nitrogen [a gas that does not react with MIC] into the tank.” [25]

The Varadarajan Committee’s investigations further revealed that:

“From 22nd October to 30th November [1984], tank 610 was under nearly atmospheric pressure. No transfer of liquid MIC for Sevin manufacture took place from tank 610. During that period MIC was being transferred from tank 611 to the Sevin unit, whenever required. However, during the 30th November first shift, there were some problems in the pressurisation system of tank 611 and the pressure could not be increased. Therefore, attempts were made to pressurise tank 610 and transfer MIC from that tank to the Sevin unit, but it could not be pressurised. In the meantime, alternative system for pressurising tank 611 was made and then it could be pressurised. Transfer of MIC to the Sevin unit was then continued from the tank 611.” [26]

UCIL has admitted that:

“Unsuccessful attempts had been made to increase the pressure in tank 610 on 30th November 1984 and 1st December 1984. No further attempt was made to build up pressure in tank 610 after 1st December 1984.” [27]

Failure to pressurise Tank 610 was a loud and clear warning that something was terribly wrong in the storage system. Thus, even as late as 01.12.1984, corrective actions could have been initiated to prevent the ensuing catastrophe. The MIC had to be stored under the stipulated pressure of high purity nitrogen in order to prevent entry of other foreign bodies into the tank, because any such entry would set off or catalyze dangerous reactions. The Varadarajan Committee, therefore, had deduced that: “…the tank 610 could not be pressurised with nitrogen at any time after 22 October 1984.” Therefore, in its opinion: “The contents of the tank were virtually at atmospheric pressure from that date providing opportunities for entry of metal contaminants”.[28] [and, of course, water]

The UCC Investigation Team that visited Bhopal soon after the disaster too has admitted that:

“The header in the MIC facility also has an alarm to indicate low nitrogen pressure. This alarm is to alert the operators to take corrective action to prevent possible contamination.” [29]

This admission by the UCC team meant that for 42 days (between 22 October and 02 December), despite the “alarm to indicate low nitrogen pressure” being supposedly sounded, no corrective steps were taken by the UCIL managers and maintenance staff to raise the nitrogen pressure, thereby, leaving 41 tonnes of MIC in Tank 610 open to contamination all that time. On the other hand, if the alarm was malfunctioning and the operators were not alerted to the danger in time that would also be an admission that for at least forty-two days no inspections was carried out to ensure that all the instrumentation systems attached to the extremely hazardous MIC unit were in working order. Such serious lapses would amount to gross criminal acts on the part of the UCIL management. The UCC Investigation Team also acknowledged that: “Analysis of refined MIC from storage tanks is required to detect impurities in the tanks.” [30] Despite this stipulation, “there is no record of analyses of MIC in Tank 610 after October 19 [1984].” [31]

The Eruption

The first leak of MIC was noticed on 02.12.1984 at about 23.30 hours in the MIC structure area near the VGS. The operators on the ground level in this area felt the presence of MIC in the atmosphere due to irritation of their eyes. The operators who informed the plant superintendent and the supervisor that there was an MIC leak were advised to spray water around the point of leakage. Around 00.15 hours on 03.12.1984, the rupture disc of the tank that was set at 40 psig burst under intense pressure and the Safety Relief Valve (SRV) opened. Soon the field operator noticed gaseous cloud coming out from the stack. The siren was reportedly sounded around 00.30 hours and the plant personnel were alerted about the gas leak. From around 01.00 hours, water was sprayed to neutralize the gases but apparently it did not reach the top of the stack from where the gases were coming out. Around 03.00 hours, the SRV of Tank 610 is reported to have sat back, which stopped the further flow of gas through the stack. The maximum temperature and pressure that the mixture underwent in the tank during the violent reactions had a direct bearing on the types and toxicity of the reaction products that finally came out of the tank. According to the Varadarajan Committee, “…the mechanical examination of the tank indicates that the pressures may have reached 11 to 13 kg/cm2g with the corresponding temperatures in the range of 200 to 350ºC.” [32]

The amount and types of materials forced out of the tank have not been determined exactly. According to the UCC Investigation team:

“However, based on the heats of reaction, about 40 percent of the MIC reacting would release enough heat to raise the temperature of the tank and vaporize the remaining 60 percent of the MIC.”

The UCC Investigation Team further added:

“In order to discharge most of the contents of the tank within two hours, the pressure had to average 180 psig. At these conditions, material would be discharged at a rate of 40,000 pounds per hour: 29,000 per hour of vapor and 11,000 pounds of solid/liquid mixture. Approximately 54,000 pounds of unreacted MIC left Tank 610 together with approximately 26,000 pounds of reaction products.”[33]

Neither the senior managers of UCC nor of the UCIL can by no stretch of imagination claim that they were unaware of the disastrous consequences of criminal mismanagement. These officials had prior knowledge that MIC is an extremely lethal material and that any release of the toxic chemical into the atmosphere would have grievous impact on life systems and the environment of Bhopal. Its properties were such that “on thermal decomposition, MIC could produce hydrogen cyanide …carbon monoxide…”[34], i.e., its byproducts are also highly poisonous. Their failure to formulate in advance an emergency preparedness plan and an evacuation plan for the population of Bhopal only compounded the problem. Therefore, there is ample prima facie evidence to hold the management of UCC, UCE and UCIL and the three companies guilty of criminal acts that caused the catastrophe and to prosecute them under Section 304 Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code through imprisonment and by imposing punitive fines.

Criminal Case

It was only on 01.12.1987 that the CBI finally filed its charge sheet against 12 accused (including Kishore Kamdar, Vice President, Agricultural Production Division, UCIL, as accused no.4; UCC, USA, as accused No.10; Union Carbide Eastern (UCE), Hong Kong, as accused No.11; and UCIL as accused No.12) before the CJM, Bhopal. [35] As a result, hearing in the criminal case began before the CJM on 04.02.1988. While accused Nos.2 to 9 and 12 were present; accused Nos.1, 10 and 11 were absent (and continued to remain absent at subsequent hearings). Since the CBI’s charge sheet also stated that further investigations were to be carried out in USA, the CJM, Bhopal, issued a Letter Rogatory dated 06.07.1988 addressed to the U.S. Government for the purpose. The said letter of request was issued to enable the CBI to inspect the safety-systems installed at the MIC unit of UCC’s Institute plant for purposes of comparing the safety-standards with those installed at the Bhopal plant. The CBI had also stated that it had to collect necessary documents pertaining to the case both from the U.S. and from Hong Kong. Subsequently, a CBI team led by DIG K.Madhavan and a senior scientist, Dr.M.Sriram, did visit the U.S. in November 1988 for the said purpose. However, the CBI team was forced to return without fulfilling its tasks since the U.S. Administration informed the CBI that it would have to wait until the State of West Virginia granted the necessary permission for the same.

When it became clear that Anderson was deliberately avoiding being present in the court, the CJM, after accepting the CBI’s application, proclaimed Anderson as an absconder on 09.02.1989 and directed the CBI to produce the accused before the Court on 31.03.1989. Shortly thereafter, on 14.02.1989, the U.S. Administration informed the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, that permission had been granted to the CBI to carry out the said investigations in the U.S. as per the Letter Rogatory. However, CBI’s attempt at executing its intended tasks in the U.S. was thwarted by the sudden Court-assisted settlement before the Supreme Court of India on 14/15.02.1989 between the GOI and the UCC for a sum of 470 million U.S. Dollars on the condition that all present and future criminal cases against UCC/UCIL would be quashed. Did the CJM’s decision on 09.02.1989 to issue non-bailable warrant of arrest against UCC’s Chairman, Warren Anderson, and the U.S. Administration’s decision on 14.02.1989 to permit the CBI to inspect the safety-systems of the MIC unit at UCC’s plant at Institute in West Virginia, USA, and for collecting the relevant documents, have anything to do with the sudden settlement? The criminal cases against the accused were revived on 03.10.1991 at the instance of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS), the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) and others, who had filed review and writ petitions against the settlement order. Although the CBI sought to revive the Letter Rogatory vide letter dated 24.12.1991 addressed to the concerned official at the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, the GOI has till date not made any attempt to facilitate the visit of the CBI to the U.S. to verify the allegation of adoption of duel safety standards by UCC. Execution of the said Letter Rogatory and verification of the said facts by the CBI are crucial to the entire criminal case.

It is, indeed, a big mystery as to why the GOI did not take any further steps to pursue the matter with the U.S. Government regarding execution of the said Letter Rogatory. The fact is that the said UCC’s plant at Institute in West Virginia, USA, is currently owned and operated by the West German chemical company Bayer and it is continuing to produce MIC based pesticides. Therefore, the CBI can still visit the U.S. and carry out the necessary comparative study if the GOI takes necessary steps to facilitate the CBI’s visit.

The crime of Union Carbide in causing the disaster has been compounded by the fact that the design and operation of the Bhopal plant had led to dumping of toxic wastes and effluents from the factory from beginning of its operations there in 1977 until the closing down of the plant following the disaster in 1984. It has resulted in the poisoning of soil and ground water in and around the UCIL factory. The several thousands of residents in the nearby areas, who were almost entirely dependent on hand-pumps for their daily domestic needs of water have become victims of slow poisoning by unwittingly consuming the contaminated water. It is becoming increasingly clear that the consequences of such consumption of contaminated water could be very devastating to the health and wellbeing of such victims of environmental degradation.

Under the circumstances, merely pursuing the criminal case relating to the release of toxic gases on 02/03.12.1984 is not enough. Criminal cases must also be instituted against UCC (presently owned by the Dow Chemical Company, USA) and the concerned officials of UCC, UCE and UCIL for wanton destruction of the environment through unfettered dumping of toxins and for inflicting grievous injuries on unsuspecting citizens of Bhopal. The Government of India and the Government of Madhya Pradesh must also be held accountable for their gross negligence in failing to carryout periodic safety inspections and monitor the design, maintenance and operation of the pesticide factory that was producing and storing highly hazardous chemicals and polluting the environment.

N. D. JAYAPRAKASH is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum & Co-Convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS, a coalition of organizations supporting the cause of the Bhopal gas victims) He can be reached at: jaypdsf@gmail.com

End Notes:

[1] The report titled “Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Looking Beyond”, was released at a Press Conference in Delhi on 18.12.1984 by Mr. P.N.Haksar, former Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the then President of Delhi Science Forum.

[2] Subsequent research uncovered that: “The number of blue-collar workers employed had been reduced from 850 to 642 over two years preceding the event; management had cut operator strength as much as half in potentially dangerous operations…. Unqualified people were running the plant at the time of the release. Certified chemical plant operators had been replaced by less skilled operators, and only a relatively untrained supervisor and maintenance workers were present at the time of the incident.” Barry I. Castleman and Prabir Purkayastha, ‘The Bhopal Disaster as a Case Study in Double Standards’, in Jane H. Ives (ed.), “The Export of Hazard”, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, p. 217

[3] Total containment was a process by which the entire toxic material that is stored in a factory could be contained and neutralised within its premises in case of an accident.

[4] ‘Mythyl Isocyanate – F-41443A’, Union Carbide Corporation, 270 Park Avenue, New York 10017,July 1976

[5] Ibid

[6] Union Carbide India Limited, Agricultural Products Division, Bhopal, October 1978, p.122

[7] Union Carbide India Limited, Agricultural Products Division, Bhopal, February 1979, para 4.10.1, pp. 36-37

[8] UCC Investigation Team Report titled “Bhopal Mythyl Isocyanate Incident” was released at a Press Conference, which UCC held on 20.03.1985 at Danbury, Connecticut, USA

[9] According to reports, “Carbide USA is alleged to have approved of turning off the MIC coolant system (‘chiller’), a measure which effected significant savings in energy operating costs…. It is unthinkable that such a vital safeguard would be sacrificed at a US plant with large-scale storage of MIC. Union Carbide India Ltd. publicly announced an energy saving of 18% from conservation measures in its Annual Report for 1983.” See Castlemen & Purkayastha, op cit., pp.217-218

In fact, there is irrefutable evidence provided by Defense Witness No.8, Mr.T.R.Raghuraman, who deposed before the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Bhopal, on 22.02.2010, that it was on 07.01.1982 that Warren Woomer (from UCC, USA), the then Works Manager at UCIL, Bhopal, who took the decision to shut off the refrigeration system and to operate it only intermittently. According to the said witness, this was evident from the Technical Instruction Note (Document No.37 dated 12.01.1982, exhibit no.46), which the Prosecution has submitted as evidence before the Court of the CJM. The said witness has also revealed that the UCC’s Inspection Team that prepared the Operational Safety Survey Report in May 1982 had not opposed this decision. Neither accused No.5, J.Mukund, who succeeded Warren Woomer as Works Manager at UCIL, Bhopal, nor any of the other accused officials of UCIL did anything to reverse the shocking decision, which left huge quantities of MIC in the storage tanks not at 0º Celsius as stipulated by UCC’s brochure and UCIL’s Operation Safety Manuals but at ambient temperature, which always ranged between 150 Celsius and 400 Celsius.

[10] An internal memorandum of UCC dated 11.09.1984, had warned that a “runaway reaction” could cause a catastrophic failure in the storage tanks holding the poisonous MIC at UCC’s Institute Plant in West Virginia, USA. This was evident from the statement that was released in Washington, D.C., on 24.01.1985 by Congressman Henry Waxman (Chairman, House Sub-committee on Health and Environment of the US Congress).

[11] The Institute plant subsequently resumed operations soon after the UCC Investigation Team released its report on Bhopal. Currently, the Institute plant is owned and operated by Bayer, the German chemical giant, and continues to produce MIC based pesticides.

[12] Statement of Jackson Browning, UCC’s Vice-President for Health, Safety, and Environmental Affairs, released at the Press Conference addressed by him on 20.03.1985 at Danbury, CT, USA

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Report on Scientific Studies on the Factors Related to Bhopal Toxic Gas Leakage’ (The Varadarajan Committee Report), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, Sardar Patel Bhavan, Sansad Marg, New Delhi, December 1985, p.74

[15] Statement of Jackson Browning, op cit.

[16] Varadarajan Committee Report, op cit., p.74

[17] Castlemen & Purkayastha, op cit., p.216

[18] Raajkumar Keshwani, ’Jansatta’ (Hindi national daily), 16.06.1984

[19] ‘Dainik Aalok’ (Hindi daily), Bhopal, 24.04.1982

[20] L.A.Kail, J.M.Paulson, C.S.Tyson: “Operational Safety Survey, CO/MIC/SEVIN Units, Union Carbide India Limited, Bhopal Plant, May 1982” , Union Carbide Corporation, Chemicals and Plastics, P.O. Box 8361, South Charleston, West Virginia 25301, p.2

[21] ‘Nav Bharat’ (Hindi daily), Bhopal, 07.10.1982

[22] J.Mukund’s written reply has been admitted as evidence and marked as Exhibit No.P2906 in criminal case No.8460 of 1996 before the Court of the CJM, Bhopal.

[23] Internal memorandum of UCC dated 11.09.1984, released by U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman, op cit.

[24] Quoted in the Written Statement of UCC dated 10.12.1986 that was filed before the Court of the District Judge, Bhopal, in Regular Civil Suit No.1113 of 1986. See Upendra Baxi and Amita Danda “Valiant Victims and Lethal Litigation: The Bhopal Case”, Indian Law Institute, Delhi, 1990, pp.85-86

[25] Varadarajan Committee Report, op cit., pp.11-12

[26] Ibid

[27] Quoted in the Written Statement of UCC dated 10.12.1986 that was filed before the Court of the District Judge, Bhopal, in Regular Civil Suit No.1113 of 86. See Baxi and Dhanda, op cit., p.75

[28] Varadarajan Committee Report, op cit., p. iii

[29] UCC Investigation Team Report, op cit., p.8

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid, p.21

[32] Varadarajan Committee Report, op cit, p. 76

[33] UCC Investigation Team Report, op cit., p.24

[34] Para 9 of the Charge Sheet filed against the accused in the Bhopal gas leak disaster case by the CBI on 01.12.1987, before the Bhopal District Court. See Baxi & Dhanda, op cit., p.642

[35] See: Baxi & Dhanda, op cit., p.639