The Crime of Union Carbide 07

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 22nd October 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]

Part 7 of a serialised article by N. D. Jayaprakash

Full article

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.

Girl with candle Bhopal

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