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Bhopal's toxic legacy

Nicole Scherschun, Leila Knüppel / alsDecember 11, 2012

Thousands died in the industrial accident - still considered one of the world's worst - in Bhopal, India in December, 1984. Yet toxic waste remains at the former Union Carbide pesticide plant were the gas leak occurred.

Former Union Carbide lab at Bophal now covered in cobwebs Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun
Image: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

It's the residents in the area who have to live with the fate of the Bhopal accident. Hazira Bee is surrounded by men with grave expressions on their faces and women wearing colorful saris, holding the hands of young children. The 57-year-old activist confirms what these locals in this northern Bhopal district have presumed for a long time: their drinking water is contaminated - with lead and other heavy metals and toxic substances.

Hazardous chemicals seep from the old, abandoned pesticide plant formerly run by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) - a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation - directly into the groundwater. The company dumped its waste on the site for years, says Bee, who works for International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

Hazira Bee Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun
Hazira Bee (r), activist and Bhopal disaster survivorImage: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

Following years of protest by residents and a successful law suit at the highest court, several of the municipalities now have access to clean water after the government laid new water lines from 30 kilometers away.

The struggle for clean water

But many of the surrounding communities haven't been so lucky: The government did dismount hand-cranked water pumps and close wells and fountains in these areas as well, but new water lines were not installed. So the residents have no clean running water. "We have to go to the homes of people in the neighboring areas and buy water from them," explained one young woman.

And that's not all. Environmental activists have warned that the contaminated water is spreading, with at least 60,000 currently affected.

Hazira Bee and many others have been fighting US giant Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), as well as Dow Chemical Company, which purchased UCC in 2001. The protestors have also been trying to combat the apathy of politicians and the public concerning the after-effects of the industrial disaster. And, they are striving to finally get the chemical waste cleaned up.

"Dow Chemical should take all the waste back to the United States and get rid of it there," Bee shouts to the people who have surrounded her. "The Indian government must finally put pressure on those responsible."

Rusty remants at the Union Carbide plant in northern Bhopal Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun Datum/Ort: November 2012, Bhopal, Indien
Plant parts rust away, chemicals continue to contaminateImage: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

One of the world's biggest industrial disasters

It was 28 years ago when the Bhopal accident - considered one of the world's worst chemical disasters - occurred. Some 40 tons of highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant. On that cold Sunday evening of December 3-4, 1984, the white smoke billowed through the streets of the districts surrounding the plant, ultimately settling in the eyes and lungs of the residents.

More than 20,000 people died; hundreds of thousands have suffered from gas-related injuries or diseases: lung diseases, eye problems and high blood pressure. Many women cannot have children.

Nowadays, the deadly plant sits in an oasis of green trees. Rusty pipes and tanks jut out from the sallow grass. A few goats graze nearby, and children play cricket, even though the site is supposedly off limits. But no one stops them. Wide holes gape open in the meter-high walls surrounding the plant; the barbed wire at the entrance has been pulled away and stomped down.

No warning or evacuation plan

T. R. Chauhan walks past the rusted tanks and pipes. It's his former inspection route. When he used to work at the plant years ago, he had to adjust the pressure, temperature and flow rate directly on the valves at the pesticide plant.

Former plant worker T.R. Chauhan Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun
Former plant worker T.R. Chauhan holds UCC responsibleImage: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

Who's to blame for the catastrophe 28 years ago remains unclear to this day. But one thing is certain: numerous security mechanisms were turned off or broken on that December evening in 1984. Chauhan believes US-based Union Carbide is responsible, since he argues they tried to cut corners in building and maintaining the factory. 

A sign still hangs in the control room of the plant, designed to warn workers in the event of an emergency: "Your attention please. There is release of toxic gas from the unit." But in December 1984, the sirens were immediately turned off; the public was not warned. And there was also no evacuation plan.

An old emergency sign still hangs in the plant's control room Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun Bhopal, Indien
An old emergency sign still hangs in the plant's control roomImage: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

The easy way of dumping waste

Chauhan drives his car along the southern tip of the industrial site, where Union Carbide disposed of most of its waste, the former factory worker says. The chemicals were originally just dumped on the ground; later, they were put in an evaporating basin.

This kind of basin is pretty simple to build, Chauhan explains, while he carefully circles around the puddles that have formed in the path along the factory wall. "They dug a hole, put a little plastic tarp in it and then poured in the chemicals."

These days, the water in the basin is black. Kids play just beside it as a light chemical stench rises from the fluid.

Contaminated soil and water

Rachna Dhingra has been trying to find out for years what exactly is lurking in the soil and groundwater below the former factory. She is the main coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

In 1990, her organization sent soil samples to Boston for testing. Lab researchers discovered lead and mercury at that time, says Dhingra. They also found the insecticides Aldicarb and Carbaryl, which cause damage to the liver, lungs, kidneys and the brain.

Two Greenpeace studies and a recent analysis by the Indian Institute for Toxology have likewise found many of these substances in the water and soil. Union Carbide successor Dow Chemical has rejected responsibility for cleaning up the site.

Rachna Dhingra in Bhopal Copyright: Leila Knüppel/Nicole Scherschun
Rachna Dhingra in BhopalImage: DW/L.Knüppel/N. Scherschun

Yet the company may have been aware of a possible contamination, says Dhingra: "We found notices from 1982 in which the Indian subsidiary was warning headquarters in the United States that the tarp in the evaporating basin was leaking."

"They knew about it two years before the chemical accident and yet didn't do anything about it," she says.

No plan for disposal

The activists have been arguing with the Indian government for a long time over proper disposal of the toxic waste. India does not have suitable facilities for the task. Up until August 2012, Germany was also being considered as a possible place for disposal. 350 tons of highly toxic waste was supposed to be safely incinerated in Hamburg - but that would have been only five percent of the entire amount of waste.

But that deal fell through as well. It was too uncertain, too expensive, and too dangerous - and for Rachna Dhingra, it would have been only a partial solution. She wants to see a complete one, and one that assesses beforehand exactly how great the contamination of the water and soil is. "Only then can we decide how best to dispose of the waste so that people will no longer be poisoned by it."