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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

June, 2007



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Bhopal Wastes to be Incinerated by Indian Company
By Marie Siegenthaler

Bhopal, India: December 2, 1984. It was on this day that a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide endured what is known to be the biggest industrial disaster in history. A tank of methylisocyanate (MIC) exploded when water from leaky pipes reacted with the tank's contents. This released a toxic cloud of MIC over Bhopal and the surrounding 30 square miles. As the emergency sirens had been shut off to save money, no one outside the factory was aware of the catastrophe. The event immediately killed 8,000 people and has since claimed thousands more.
Union Carbide could have prevented, or at least lessened the effects of, the explosion. An investigation taken by India Central Bureau of Investigation indicates that the plant was direly lacking in safety features and that it was poorly maintained. Such renovations to prevent the tragedy would have amounted to US$ 1 million. Six of the safety features that could have prevented the explosion were malfunctioning, inadequate, or even shut down.

More than 23,000 lives (2003 estimate, International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal) and twenty-two years later, the Indian company Bharuch Environ Infrastructure Ltd. (BEIL) has agreed to clean up and dispose of the hazardous waste site by incineration. The firm claimed that the process would have no environmental impact.

Environmentalists agree that burning the waste is not the best solution. Some people, including Rohit Prajapati (Environment Protection Committee), doubt the very ability of BEIL to carry out the task. Burning hazardous waste might remove the solids, but the tradeoff is not only air pollution, but also a highly toxic ash to safely dispose of. There are safer, albeit more expensive, ways to dispose of the waste without further damage to the environment and human health.

There is also the moral issue of an Indian company taking responsibility of an American problem. The old site of the pesticide factory is a lawsuit hot potato that no company wants to touch. After December 3rd, the Union Carbide Corporation sold off some of its assets and gave the profits to shareholders as special dividends. It took ten years for UCC to completely wash its hands of its India holdings. By 1999, UCC was bought out by Dow Chemical. Dow has never accepted any of the responsibility of the incident.

Warren Anderson, the then-chairperson of United Carbide Corporation, is still charged with the "culpable homicide" of the employees of the plant and the people of Bhopal. In 1989, UCC paid an out-of-court settlement of US$ 470 million for the deaths of 3,000 people (a low and probably inaccurate estimate). Anderson himself never showed up at court in India and warrant is still out for his arrest. The United States has refused to release him to India. Every December since 1984, an effigy of Warren Anderson has been paraded through the ruins of the plant and town, and then burned.

The site is currently under the authority of India's Madhya Pradesh state. BEIL was paid US$ 220,000 to clean the site. "We have the best waste disposal facility and it is child's play for us," said BEIL chairman Rajju Shroff.

The plan is the transport 350 tons of toxic waste from the site in Bhopal to the incinerator in Ankleshwar. Over the course of a week, the waste will be burned.

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