Thursday, December 3, 2009, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in world history. Five minutes before midnight December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), killing and injuring over half a million innocent people. Why should the people of the United States spend time pondering a 25 year old tragedy in India, a third world country half way around the world?
The United States is sitting on a ticking chemical bomb twice a big as the Bhopal tragedy. This time it is a German owned company on United States soil, threatening the life, health, economy, land, resources, and environment of U. S. people. Where is the public outrage? Why have our government leaders failed to protect the people in the United States from threats of chemical disasters? The answers may surprise you.
By December 1984 the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal India had been cited for safety violations, failure of monitoring systems, leaks of MIC into the community, and an explosion and fatality. Union Carbide was a U.S. owned chemical giant based in Institute, West Virginia. Decisions that allowed the Bhopal plant to fall into disrepair were made in the U. S.
In "Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal", authors Dominique LaPierre and Javier Moro give us a history lesson of the events that led to explosion and leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) stored at the Union Carbide plant. Two years prior to the disaster, journalist Rajkumar Keswani published warnings about the MIC storage, that the Union Carbide plant was a sitting on top of a “volcano.” Eager to profit from the Bhopal plant, Institute ignored the warnings, resulting in the worst industrial tragedy in history.
Despite a history of safety violations the Union Carbide plant executives declared the MIC storage safe. India's government officials, fearful and preoccupied with a downturn in the economy and massive layoffs caused by climate change, failed to heed warnings about the danger of the MIC storage at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal.
Union Carbides' assurances proved worthless. On December 2, 1984, a chain reaction exploded a tank of MIC at the Union Carbide plant, ultimately killing and injuring half a million people, destroying livestock and food sources, and polluting land and waterways.
Imprinted on my mind was LaPierre and Moro’s dramatic detail, and education of the carnage wreaked from MIC. Twice as heavy as air, the poisonous cloud blanketed the ground, seeping into homes, schools, places of worship. Thousands ran through the streets trying to escape the searing, suffocating chemicals.
Ripping their clothing off their burning skin, many dropped dead, others lay dying in pools of their own vomit in the roads and alleyways. A medic bent over a child to give mouth -to-mouth resuscitation. The gas was so deadly, that after inhaling the air from the child’s lungs, he was the next to die.
LaPierre and Moro describe in haunting detail, the condition of bodies. Two doctors climbed over hundreds of dead piled up at the medical clinic. The bodies appeared tortured before dying- “inflamed eyes about to burst. . Fetid, foul breath from the mouths oozing blood streaked froth." An entire family wiped out, the parents and their six children lay sprawled on the ground, their eyes bulging, "the youngest had died sucking their thumbs.” A little girl, her carefully braided hair adorned with marigolds, lay among the dead, her eyes rolled back into her head, her mouth twisted, set into dreadful grimace.
Bodies were tortured even after death. “Under pressure from the gases produced by the chemical decomposition of MIC,” writes the authors, “the corpses were subject to strange twitches. Here an arm stretched itself out, there a leg.” A fleeing driver, blinded by the chemicals, remains haunted by the sound of human bones crushing beneath his tires.
People living in the United States have more to fear from toxic exposure and injury as a result of irresponsible chemical companies than from terrorists and biochemical weapons. More than twice the MIC stored at the Bhopal plant is being stored at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virginia.
Half a dozen schoolchildren are required to attend schools within the dangerous plume area of the Institute plant. There are no plans for evacuation in the event of a leak of MIC. Unfortunately, MIC is so deadly, there are no known antidotes.
Following the explosion last year, the Bayer plant was criticized for failing to provide chemical information to emergency responders. Deja vu? That is exactly what happened following the leak in Bhopal. Despite a record of safety violations similar to the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Bayer management assured our government leaders that the Institute plant was safe. Last year, paralleling the Bhopal disaster, the failed safety systems at Bayer Institute plant led to the explosion that claimed two fatalities. A few months before the blast, a chemist from the Bayer plant in Germany warned the chemical plant engineer that storing 63 tons of MIC was a “real atomic bomb right in the middle of the plant.”
Institute is a 120 ton ticking time bomb so volatile it can be detonated by one drop of water or a metal filing. Yet the Bayer plant in Institute is allowed by our government to hid its chemical "weapon" behind our national security laws while they assure us that the MIC stored in West Virginia is safe. Chemical companies operating in the U. S. are not required to provide chemical information to communities, nor to emergency responders, nor to medical personnel who may be able to administer antidotes. Why?
The stockpile of MIC at the Institute plant is reported to be more than twice as large as that the Bhopal plant, and a record of safety just as bad. A disaster of that magnitude could destroy millions of American lives, kill major food sources, pollute large portions of our land, ruin major waterways and total our struggling economy.
So great is the danger that under today’s laws, a foreign-owned company like Bayer, threatening lives of millions innocent American men, women, and children with one of the most deadly industrial chemicals on earth should be treated as an act of terrorism. Where is the outrage and historical swift action of our government officials?
I am outraged that our elected officials and government leaders, bloated from benefits paid by giant chemical companies and bottle-necked by their own bureaucracy, pretend not to be aware, not to be educated about the dangers and potential for death and injury by MIC at Institute.
Our national leaders are aware of the Bayer Institute plant's record of safety violations, failure of monitoring systems, leaks of MIC into the community, and an explosion with fatalities. They have been educated that the Institute plant has twice the MIC and are aware of the dangers posed by the storage of deadly MIC. Lessons learned? No.
How many more "toxic injury awareness" lessons do we need? Perhaps our leaders are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history because they are so distracted by international issues it fails to notice the danger lurking in its own backyard.
Write your U. S. Congressmen and government leaders and demand that in the interest of national safely, we rid our communities of dangerous stockpiles of toxic chemicals.