Thousands mark anniversary of worst industrial disaster

Friday, December 3, 2004

BHOPAL, India -- Civil rights activists, survivors and other protesters converged on Bhopal this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the world's worst industrial accident and demand justice for hundreds of thousands of people still suffering in the aftermath.

A leak of 40 tons of poisonous gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant on Dec. 3, 1984, killed at least 10,000 people in this central Indian city and affected more than 555,000 others, although the exact number of victims has never been clear. Many died over the years due to gas-related illnesses, like lung cancer, kidney failure and liver disease.

Thousands of demonstrators planned to march through the main streets of Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, today before holding a public meeting outside the abandoned Union Carbide plant.

U.S. chemical company Union Carbide Corp., which was bought by Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. in 2001, paid $470 million in compensation under a settlement with India's government in 1989. But only part of that amount has reached the victims.

"We will burn effigies of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical to voice our protest. These two companies have betrayed the victims of Bhopal," said Rashida Bee, a disaster survivor who heads a women victims' group.

Bee said the protesters would conclude today's rally with a mass pledge to keep up the fight until victims' demands for compensation, medical care and rehabilitation are met.

The protesters also called on Dow Chemical to clean up the plant site, where rusted pipes and pesticide storage tanks have collapsed or ruptured in the years since the plant was abandoned after the disaster.

"Lethal chemicals are still lying around at the plant, some in the open. Every time it rains these poisonous chemicals are leaked into the soil, affecting groundwater resources of the area," Bee said.

The Bhopal gas leak was the world's worst industrial disaster. Union Carbide insists the tragedy was due to sabotage by a disgruntled employee and not shoddy safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by many activists.

Union Carbide, in a statement sent to The Associated Press, said it spent more than $2 million to clean up the plant from 1985 to 1994, when it sold its stake in Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) and the local company was renamed as Eveready Industries.

The company also says state studies indicated in 1998 that the groundwater around the plant was free of toxins and that any water contamination was due to improper drainage and other pollution, not Union Carbide chemicals.

Much of the anger also is directed at national and local government officials as bureaucratic delays and red tape had denied victims compensation when they needed it most for their medical treatment, said Bee.

"They are treating us, the victims, like the culprits responsible for causing the disaster," she said.

The state government took over legal responsibility of the site in 1998, but it has done little to remove the debris and sacks of chemicals. Greenpeace estimates it would cost at least $30 million to clean up the plant and the groundwater and soil that it claims are laced with carcinogens.

Dow maintains the legal case was resolved in 1989, when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million.

Union Carbide claims that 3,800 people were killed, while Indian officials say up to 15,000 may have died.

Indian officials estimate that nearly 600,000 more have become ill or had babies born with congenital defects over the last 20 years.

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