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Bhopal Gas Tragedy Could Have Been Avoided

Secret Union Carbide documents obtained by "discovery" during a class action suit brought by survivors against the company in New York, reveal for the first time that the technology used at the fatal Bhopal factory – including the crucial units manufacturing carbon monoxide and methyl isocyanate (MIC) – was unproven, and that the company knew it would pose unknown risks.

For 18 years since the disaster, Carbide has consistently lied by claiming that the technology in its fatal Bhopal factory was identical to that used in its plant at Institute, West Virginia. The corporation's lawyers and PR gurus even referred to Institute as Bhopal's "sister plant". But Bhopal was the ugly sister, always underfunded, always second-best.

The corporation knew the danger, but regarded it as an acceptable "business risk".

The proposal's 50 pages demonstrate a blithe disregard for human safety. Nowhere is there any mention of risks to surrounding communities – the city's railway station was less than a mile away and downwind of the plant. Instead they reveal that the company was obsessed to keep control of its Indian subsidiary at all costs – an obsession which led directly to underfunding of the MIC-Sevin unit, and which explodes another of Carbide's long-standing lies: that it had no control over its Bhopal plant.

Speaking at a press conference in Bhopal today, Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, one of the plaintiffs in the New York case, observed that "Union Carbide built the MIC unit in order to retain control, they used untried technology to keep control, they under-funded it to keep control. When it turned Bhopal into a gas chamber, they said they'd had no control."

Pressure mounts for Anderson's extradition

Carbide's ex-CEO Warren Anderson, who for the past eleven years has been refusing to appear before a criminal court in Bhopal, was one of the select Management Committee who approved the Bhopal MIC project. Pressure for his extradition to India can now be expected massively to intensify.

"We now know for sure that senior Carbide officials, including Warren Anderson, not only knew about design defects and potential safety issues with the Bhopal factory, they actually authorised them," Sarangi said.

"This is the documentary proof, the 'high standard of evidence' that the Indian Attorney General Soli Sorabjee claimed he didn't have to be able to press for Warren Anderson and Union Carbide's extradition. What we've found shows both prior knowledge and intent on the part of the accused: it is so significant that it demands the revision of the pending criminal charges in the Bhopal court."

In this opening report, timed to coincide with a press conference being held today in India by the survivors' groups involved in the New York litigation, Bhopal.Net brings you the original documents.

We will be following with detailed analyses of the documents in the light of the mountain of evidence that exists about the plant's defective siting, construction, production processes, storage, waste disposal, maintenance, training and safety systems.

For what sum did Carbide find it worth risking the life of a whole city?

One old mystery can be cleared up right away.

Union Carbide stored liquid MIC in Bhopal in huge tanks, far in excess of what ever would have been permitted in the US. MIC is a dangerously volatile chemical and these tanks were supposed to be kept cooled to 0æC. It is known that for some months prior to the huge and fatal gas leak of December 1984, the refrigeration system had been switched off to save the cost of freon gas.

For the last 18 years, survivors have wondered just how much the company must have been saving, to make it worth risking the lives of an entire Indian city.

Now we know. The figure was $37.68 per day.

The documents

On 2 December 1973 three documents were presented to the Management Committe of Union Carbide Eastern Inc, a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation: a two-page internal memorandum relating to the company's plan to begin manufacturing methyl-isocyanate at its Bhopal factory; supported by a four-page capital budget plan and a forty-four page project proposal.

Blueprints for disaster

There was a dark prophecy hidden in the date of these documents.

Exactly eleven years later – on the night of December 2nd 1984 – Carbide's unproven technology, functioning badly in a by then run-down and loss-making factory – combined with non-existent staff training, a savage programme of cost-cutting and almost total absence of maintenance – released 27 tonnes of deadly methyl-isocyanate into the night air of Bhopal.

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