About 25 years ago, one of the worst industrial disasters struck Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh in India, the City of Lakes, a rich, verdant area blessed with an abundance of waterways, ponds and lakes.
Union Carbide had been running a pesticide manufacturing plant there since 1969.
In the dark of that hideous night of Dec.3, 1984, a lethal cloud of toxic gases, 32 tons of mostly methyl isocyanate, overtook the area, leading to one of the worst industrial disasters in history.
Residents awoke to a poisonous cloud of simmering gases that burned their lungs. About 9,000 died within days, an estimated 9,000 more died within two weeks, and still more, an estimated 8,000, would die later.
An estimated 500,000 to one million survivors were exposed to the contamination — they and their children to this day have been struck with fatal and chronic health problems including blindness, neurological and breathing disorders as well as a range of calamitous birth defects.
And to this day, the area near the factory site continues to be contaminated by toxic wastes and other chemicals still leaking from the factory. Fights over the clean-up of the Bhopal plant site and India's demand for the extradition of then-Union Carbide CEO, Warren Anderson, continue.
Union Carbide owned 50.9% of this plant, with Indian-controlled banks and investors owning the remaining 49.1%. Union Carbide unloaded its stake in and around 1994 after the Supreme Court of India let the company sell. McLeod Russel (India) Ltd eventually bought the Bhopal plant. Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) bought Union Carbide in 2001.
Union Carbide later was found liable for the disaster but has denied responsibility for the incident. The Government of India sued Union Carbide in the 1980s, and the company agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $470 million in 1989.
Alex Masi, an award-winning documentary photographer in London, has put together a series of photos that tell the agonizing human side to this story that you won’t want to miss. Click here—warning, these images are disturbing.
A short multimedia piece Masi produced in 2009 can be found here.
According to the book, "The Black Box of Bhopal", the factors that contributed to the disaster included:
•The chemical plant's poorly-chosen location, near a densely populated west city area, instead of the other side of Bhopal City where the company had been offered land.
•Using hazardous ingredient chemicals (methyl isocyanate) instead of less dangerous ones
•Storing these chemicals in large tanks instead of several smaller storage tanks.
•Possible corrosion of the metals in the pipelines
•Poor maintenance at the chemical plant
•Failure of several safety systems, which were not in operation at the time.
•Deficient staffing policies, such as in the number of employees hired and their training for working with dangerous chemicals.
•Negligence on the part of the Union Carbide India, Ltd., and the Governments of India and the state of Madhya Pradesh
Here is Masi’s insight into what is still going on in Bhopal today:
“Bhopal is not yet at peace. Twenty-five years after the Union Carbide industrial disaster, thousands of people, especially children, are still embarked on a journey of sufferance and injustice that began on the night of December the 3rd, 1984. Half a million people were exposed to the 42 tons of methyl isocyanate released from the plant, while all of the safety systems failed to work due to poor maintenance.
“Thousands died in its wake. In the consciousness of people the world over, Bhopal is associated with the haunting images of that night and the failures of industrialization in the developing world.
“Left unattended for the past 25 years, the toxic waste of UC continues to penetrate the city’s underground water reservoirs every time the rain falls from the sky.
“An indelible curse, an ignoble crime, a self-perpetrating injustice against those defenseless children and their families who have been stripped of their right to dignity and happiness, whose need for water in order to survive has relentlessly poisoned their bodies, their minds, their lives.”