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Why The Bhopal Disaster Site, 28 Years Later, Is Still A Toxic Killer

The Bhopal plant, abandoned but still deadly
The Bhopal plant, abandoned but still deadly
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI - Who will be able to decontaminate Bhopal? During the night of December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in the north Indian city of Bhopal, releasing toxic gases that killed between 15,000 and 30,000 people.

Nearly 28 years after one of the worst industrial catastrophes in history, toxic chemicals abandoned on the site are still contaminating the groundwater.

On September 17, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) announced that it would not be removing 347 metric tons of waste to incinerate them in Germany, in spite of having started negotiations at the beginning of the year with the Indian government.

The reason given for the decision was that the Indian government's refusal to be responsible in case of any accident in the transport and handling of these toxic substances.

Another reason was the opposition of German activists and environmentalists to the transport and incineration of the chemical waste in their country. "We do not want highly toxic substances to travel across half the planet," Manfred Santen of Greenpeace told Deutsche Welle.

The decontamination of the Bhopal site is a gigantic project. Between 4,000 and 12,000 metric tons of toxic products are thought to be present in the soil. Removal of the 347 metric tons of waste stocked in the former factory would only be the first step. However, no incinerating center in India is capable of disposing of the waste safely. If Europe refuses to do it, the waste will have to be buried in India.

Waste and toxic chemicals, used to make pesticides, had infiltrated the soil long before the explosion. In 1982, two years before the disaster, Union Carbide's internal notes reveal that there were leaks in 23 hectares (56.8 acres) of basins used for storing chemical waste. "The evaporation basins continue to leak, which is very alarming," said a telex sent to the American headquarters of Union Carbide in 1982, and seen by Le Monde. The same year, farmers had complained of the sudden death of several cows that had been grazing near the factory.

Ongoing health problems

Seven years later, Union Carbide took samples on the factory grounds and in the waste treatment reservoirs. The analysis revealed high concentrations of naphthol and naphthalene. During the tests, fish exposed to the samples of toxic substances, even diluted, died instantly or within two days.

How many inhabitants of Bhopal were and still are contaminated by toxic waste? How many of them have died because of it? It is hard to know the truth. No independent study has evaluated the extent of groundwater contamination, nor the effects of these products on human health. More worrisome is that these effects are added to those of the gases emitted during the explosion of the factory, and that these effects are being transmitted over generations.

The Center for Rehabilitation Studies for the state of Madhya Pradesh, whose capital is Bhopal, stated in 2005 that, "the contamination of soil and groundwater clearly increased the morbidity rate among the population living around the factory." The results of an expert study ordered by the Indian Supreme Court should be known this autumn.

Around the contaminated site, children continue to be born malformed. Many local people suffer from anemia, skin ailments and cancer. Nothing has ever been done to clean up the site. In 1994, Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary to a purchaser who resold the property four years later to the State of Madhya Pradesh. As the transactions multiplied, the question of soil contamination was ignored. In 2009, the government of Madhya Pradesh maintained that the ground was not contaminated. The regional minister in charge of the victims of Bhopal even announced a plan to open the site to tourists.

It took a Supreme Court order in 2005 for local authorities to supply drinking water to inhabitants so that they would stop using wells. But the tanks that have been installed are not all connected to the homes. This August, 47% of the at-risk population did not have access to them, according to a study carried out by the associations for the defense of the victims of Bhopal.

Dow Chemical, which did not answer our requests for an interview, considers that it has no responsibility for Bhopal. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, after Union Carbide already detached itself from its Indian subsidiary. "However, it is the principle of polluter-payer that should apply," says Karuna Nundy, a lawyer for the associations of victims of Bhopal.

"It's important to distinguish the two tragedies," she says. "It’s as if burglars were arrested for having robbed a bank, but later the police also discover a corpse in the trunk of their car. Dow Chemical is responsible for both the factory explosion, which killed thousands of people, and for the groundwater pollution that continues to hurt new victims. "

Dow Chemical spends millions of dollars to show off its image as a company of "integrity," "respectful of the individual" and "protecting the planet." It spent 82 million euros to sponsor the London Olympic Games. Without such support "there would be no goosebumps, no hearts beating fast... nor union of the whole planet," the Olympic Organizing Committee said in its thanks.

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