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20 Years Later, Union Carbide Leak Still Threatens Lives in Bhopal


Twenty-years ago, in the world's worst industrial disaster, a Union Carbide chemical plant in the Indian city of Bhopal emitted a toxic cloud that instantly killed thousands of people and injured tens-of-thousands more. Since then, activists charge, no one has cleaned up the poisonous waste that continues to threaten the lives of the city's residents.

Tucked between railroad tracks and the abandoned Union Carbide chemical plant, the Atal Ayub slum is home to nearly 3,000 people. Its residents live in the shadow of the plant, where abandoned barrels of toxic waste remain open or dumped in a landfill nearby.

Shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984, a leak in a chemical storage tank at the Union Carbide pesticide factory sparked a reaction that caused a cloud of methyl-isocyanate to descend across much of the city of Bhopal. It killed 2,000 people almost instantly, and an estimated 6,000 more that week. In the years since, 15,000 more are believed to have died as a result of the gas cloud. Tens of thousands of people were sickened or permanently disabled by the gas.

Savitri, who estimates her age to be more than 40, lost two children in what, 20 years later, remains the world's worst industrial disaster. The slum, she says, still lives with its consequences.

She says when the wind blows, the toxic waste comes and people cannot breathe. We feel sick, she says, and some people have chest pains.

Atal Ayub is one of 14 communities in Bhopal where activists say waste from the Union Carbide plant still contaminates water that residents use to drink, cook and bathe. The contamination takes a toll on the health of Bhopal's poor, including children born years after the leak.

Ms. Savitri says her three surviving children suffer from skin disease and chronic respiratory problems, and her three grandchildren are underweight for their age.

Satinath Sarangi, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, says cancer rates and other ailments related to the contamination, such as anemia, remain extremely high.

"The children are born with low birth weight, they grow very slow," he said. "Mentally, physically, retardation is there."

State government officials say they are doing what they can - trucking clean water to the affected communities. But Ms. Savriti says it is never enough.

She says water deliveries take place at night, when it is difficult to get up. If residents wait until the morning to get fresh water, there will be none left. Getting fresh water, she adds, is survival of the fittest.

Union Carbide paid the Indian government $470 million in a 1989 settlement. Much of it has been paid out as compensation - about $570 per victim. Activists say that hardly covers medical costs. Further more, the state government says it does not have the $500 million needed to clean up the site now.

Mr. Sarangi's organization and other activist groups want Union Carbide to pay more to the victims and to clean up the toxic waste. But their efforts have been mired in a legal and bureaucratic maze.

In 2001, the U.S. company, Dow Chemical, bought Union Carbide and says the 1989 settlement frees it from any further liability. Dow Chemical and Union Carbide refuse to give interviews, but have issued an audio statement from its U.S. offices. In it, Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick says it is up to Indian authorities to act.

"Union Carbide India Limited spent more than $2 million on clean-up activities at this site up and through 1994," he said. "In 1998 the Madhya Pradesh state government took control of the site and assumed all future responsibilities for clean-up activities."

This year, India's Supreme Court ordered the release of $327 million in national and other funds intended as compensation.

Mr. Sarangi at the Bhopal Group for Information and Action says that winning justice for the people of Bhopal would go a long way toward ensuring greater corporate responsibility by multinational companies, especially in developing countries.

"If Union Carbide and Dow get away with what they have done - get away with the horror they have created here - that would be an unfortunate message for people all over the world whose lives and health would continue to be endangered due to corporate crime," he said. "And that is why we cannot afford to lose the battle for justice in Bhopal."

To this day, the cause of the leak remains in dispute. Union Carbide says it was the result of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. Activists charge that the company is culpable because it did not have adequate safety standards in place.

Making sense of the charges and counter-charges, and the legal and ethical issues in the case may be challenging for activists, but in Atal Ayub, Ms. Savitri is no less frustrated.

I am angry at everyone, she says, but I do not know whom to be angry at.

For Ms. Savitri and tens of thousands of others like her, what happened at the Union Carbide plant one night 20 years ago is a tragedy that has yet to end.