The Crime of Union Carbide 04

“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?

Part 4 of a serialised article by N. D. Jayaprakash

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.