Issue Date: September 10, 2007
Ronald J. Willey's review of Themistocles D'Silva's book "The Black Box of Bhopal: A Closer Look at the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster" is a welcome reminder of a debate that "is important to any chemist or chemical engineer involved in process safety" (C&EN, July 9, page 41). However, the review, like the book it analyzes, makes several critical omissions of fact.
The legislative environment in India in 1974, specifically the Foreign Equity Regulation Act (FERA), certainly contributed to the degradation of safety at the Bhopal plant, though not in the sense it's described.
Under FERA, Union Carbide Corp. had to reduce its share in Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) to no more than 40%. High-technology inputs at Bhopal were enough to gain Union Carbide some exemptions, but they were insufficient to prevent the company's stake from dropping below 50%. To keep its majority share, therefore, Union Carbide would have to "reduce the amount of investment ... to $20.6 million," with the cuts mainly on the Sevin project" (www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3140). To achieve the cuts, a Union Carbide management committee ratified a plan to send inferior, unproven technology to Bhopal (www.bhopal.net/oldsite/unproventechnology.html).
Union Carbide took these extraordinary safety risks to retain its managerial control of UCIL. The fact of Union Carbide's managerial control is perhaps the greatest omission of D'Silva's book, and he is forced to ignore a plethora of court documents in order to sustain it. For example, court evidence shows it was a U.S.-led management group, the Bhopal Task Force, which oversaw later cost-cutting in Bhopal.
Union Carbide also stipulated a design review process whereby it would approve all designs for the Bhopal plant not originating from its U.S. subsidiaries. It could be no other way as no business in India had any experience with methyl isocyanate (MIC) manufacture.
As one result, Union Carbide defined and sourced the safety systems that the reviewer notes played a significant role in the disaster. Proper controls and designs are imperative when working with isocyanate chemistry, Willey states. But while Indian managers are criticized for lax maintenance, it's not acknowledged that the controls and designs placed in Bhopal by Union Carbide were utterly unsuitable for any emergency situation.
In the 1980s, installing safety devices could cost between 15 and 30% of outlay at a plant's inception. In respect of Union Carbide's $20 million investment, this amounts to between $3 million and $6 million. Thanks to the documents disregarded by D'Silva, we know that Union Carbide saved $8 million simply in order to retain managerial control of UCIL.
Though Willey frankly asserts that D'Silva's analysis is heavily influenced by his former employment at Union Carbide, it's unfortunate that he doesn't take this insight far enough.
Trustee, the Bhopal Medical Appeal
While I have not read D'Silva's book on the disaster in Bhopal, based on the description of the book and what I know about industry, government, and chemical safety, I have the following comments.
Two years before the runaway chemical reaction in India, there was a similar incident at a Union Carbide chemical plant with an almost identical chemical in Taft, La. In Taft, like Bhopal, there was an incredibly large storage tank of a highly reactive chemical.
When the runaway reaction started in the Union Carbide plant at Taft, the local emergency response system kicked in and more than 17,000 residents who lived within five miles of Union Carbide were evacuated. Apparently, there was no such system in India, and no one was evacuated. Sadly, more than 20,000 people have died as a result of the Bhopal chemical accident.
Several questions need to be asked: Why did Union Carbide have such large quantities of these highly reactive chemicals stored at their plants both in India and the U.S.? Why did Union Carbide not include a large buffer zone around its facility in Bhopal? Why did the governments of India and the U.S allow Union Carbide to operate its chemical facilities in ways that put thousands of people, both residents and industrial workers, at great risk? This question is especially important because the accidents were predictable and totally preventable.
What did Union Carbide and the various government officials and agencies in India and the U.S. do before the accidents in 1982 and 1984 to make sure that adequate medical facilities with appropriately trained staff and equipment were available around these hazardous chemical plants if a "worst-case scenario" accident were to happen? Are they better prepared today?
The public needs to get involved in helping industry and governments around the world to do their jobs better. If industry tries to argue that the public has no business telling them what they can and cannot do on their property, then industry needs to keep all of their chemicals and discharges into the air, water, and land on their property. Finally, Union Carbide and Dow, which acquired Union Carbide, need to properly compensate the victims of Bhopal.
William A. Gontenot
Baton Rouge, La.
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