The date December 2 1984 marks the most devastating catastrophe ever to occur in industrial history. The unparalleled devastation that happened in Bhopal India shattered the lives of many local residents and also sparked a fierce debate to make sure this type of incident never occurred again. The company that was implicated in this horrible travesty was the US based multinational conglomerate, Union Carbide.
The event that occurred on the December night is considered by many to be the “Hiroshima of the chemical industry”. Forty tones of toxic gases were realized into the atmosphere when the safety valve opened due to an increase in pressure at one of the plant’s storage tanks. Methyl Isocyanate, Hydrogen cyanide and mono-methyl amine, along with other gases were spewed into the air where they formed a deadly cocktail. After the gases mixed in the air, a rolling wind carried the noxious air 25 miles. “Since Methyl Isocyanate in gaseous form is heavier then air, its has a tendency to settle down and make it very prone to wind dispersal”.
The synergetic effect of the gases proved deadly for some and incapacitating for many more. Reports stated that the gases burned tissues of the eyes and lungs, attributed to multi-organ damage, entered the bloodstream and affected the kidneys, liver, intestines, brain and reproductive as well as immune systems.
The effects weren't’t felt only medically. Socially, for the ones who were sparred death and were able to recover from their tragic experience, life was not a walk in the park. For many, that faithful night in December marked the end of life as they knew it. Many people become unfit to meet the physical demands of jobs they once executed with ease. Some men and women became impotent, which lead to turmoil in their marital lives.
Cost cutting and attempts to enhance profits lead to a decrease in safety standards at the plant led to the catastrophe in December. Before this major incident in India, Union Carbide’s facility had been plagued with smaller, but potentially devastating problems. These problems probably stemmed from poor maintenance habits, inexperienced plant workers, scarcity of proper parts, and overall lack of capital “Senior management design’s and operates plants to maximize the inflow of money, while safety and maintenance are given much lower priority, especially if the plant is losing money [as in the case of Union Carbides Bhopal plant]”.
There is no doubt in my mind that Union Carbide was at fault for the incident that happened in Bhopal. The location itself was a poor one. Union Carbide should have situated the plant away from any populated areas, but they were met with little opposition because the surrounding communities did not understand the concept of risk involved in the manufacturing of these chemicals.
Something was going on internally that the people of the community may not have been aware of and if they were they were threatened with legal action if they spoke out about what they knew. If two thirds of highly skilled engineers, who had been working at the plant since its inception decided to leave and seek new positions else where, you might imply that something major was going on. Also, top officials at the plant should have learned from past incidents, that something was not working right at the plant that the lay public was unaware of. The material’s they were manufacturing were highly toxic, if this industry was in my back yard, I would hope that they had an explicit evacuation plan in case something happened.
I believe that monetary damages should be awarded to the people affected by the gas exposure in all the negative aspects the gases caused. The company should be held “liable for medical care, health monitoring and necessary research work". They should use a method similar to a cost/benefit analysis program and place specific values for each aspect of the community that was lost or damaged, and ultimately compensate the citizens respectively for the lives lost or rendered unproductive.
I would like to believe that what occurred in Bhopal could not occur here, but in reality, when working with any type of volatile material, anything can happen, its just a matter of if you can prevent the obvious. There is no way to prepare for the unexpected, but though routine maintenance and a highly educated staff the obvious could be prevented. However, no matter how educated the staff are or how high the safety standards are, blatant disregard to smaller problems have the potential to add up to a massive synergetic response. If an EPA investigation didn’t reveal the sixty-one small leaks at West Virginia Union Carbide plant, we could have very well been looking at another Bhopal.
If the plant in Bhopal had been situated in the US, there would have been much higher safety standards implemented. Companies operating in foreign countries are not obligated to meet the same environmental standards that are imposed on them in the US. “Therefore the industry must find a balance, due to the international competition, between government requirements and regulations, the demanding obligations to society and the environment, and the necessary cost and benefit conflict the companies face”.
However, I feel there is no safer remedy then prevention. I think what happened at the plant could have been easily prevented by better site management and a more skilled work force. In the long run its much cheaper to prevent an incident then it is to be found liable for one, but the only people major corporations are responsible to their stockholders. This leaves them as individuals immune to any criminal proceedings, so basically as long as they keep increasing their stock value they will keep their job, this premise leaves little room for moral ethics.