US giant's defence on Bhopal could be undermined by company papers

Saeed Shah
Monday 06 December 2004 01:00

New evidence has emerged that could undermine Union Carbide's long-standing denial of responsibility for the world's worst industrial accident, the devastation of the Indian city of Bhopal.

New evidence has emerged that could undermine Union Carbide's long-standing denial of responsibility for the world's worst industrial accident, the devastation of the Indian city of Bhopal.

The American company has always claimed that its Indian subsidiary was solely responsible for the design and management of the plant, where a poisonous gas leak killed thousands of people 20 years ago.

The documents, obtained by The Independent, show the closeness of the relationship between the American chemical giant and its financially troubled Indian business.

A massive leak of poisonous gas from the pesticide factory in December 1984 killed some 7,000 people instantly and contributed to the death of more than 20,000 more. Survivors are still seeking justice and proper compensation.

The documents also show cost-cutting in the year before the fatal leak. Staff and maintenance cuts have been cited as key factors in the accident.

Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) from the US owned a 51 per cent stake in its Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).

UCC and its chairman at the time of the leak, Warren Anderson, have never answered a summons to face charges of culpable homicide in India. UCC was bought by Dow Chemical, another US giant, in 2001.

The documents show that UCC provided the "basic process design" for the Bhopal plant - built in the late 1970s.

The first document, dated 22 September 1975, was a memorandum from a UCC engineer called Charles H Becker, and shows the intimate and extensive involvement of UCC in procuring equipment, designing and providing technical services to the plant in Bhopal. The document shows that UCC was involved in procuring "safety equipment" and "control instrumentation" - both of which failed on the night of 2 December 1984, when water entered a storage tank containing the volatile chemical methyl isocyanate, triggering a chemical reaction that sent clouds of deadly gas over nearby slums.

The memo ended with the words: "Union Carbide's know-how, technical support, and majority ownership of UCIL provide assurance of technical competence."

A second document is dated 24 February 1984. This letter is between two senior managers at Union Carbide Eastern Inc, the Hong Kong-based subsidiary which oversaw UCC's operations in Asia. The "confidential" letter, between vice-president R Natarajan and J B Law, chairman of Union Carbide Eastern, discussed the severe financial problems that had hit Union Carbide India by early 1984. It then went on to ask "what UCC is going to do to resolve the problem".

The document also revealed that: "A major OIP [Operations Improvement Programme] effort, including reduction of 335 men, resulted in $1.25m annual cost savings in 1983 but future savings will not be easy."

Tim Edwards, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, said: "These two documents prove that Union Carbide USA slashed operating costs and sourced safety systems that, by Union Carbide's own admission, did not have the capacity to prevent the disaster."

Tomm F Sprick, director of the Union Carbide Information Centre - the PR department of UCC - insisted: "The cost-cutting memo you cited had nothing to do with the incident." He admitted that "the safety systems in place could not have prevented a chemical reaction of this magnitude" but blamed the leak on sabotage.

William Krohley, a lawyer for Union Carbide pointed to a civil lawsuit brought by Bhopal survivors and the Indian government in a US court in 1987, which found that, at the time, "UCC's participation was limited and its involvement in plant operations was terminated long before the accident. Preliminary process design information furnished by UCC could not have been used to construct the plant."

Mr Edwards said the new documents undermined both these conclusions.

"No US court has ever rejected the assertions made by Bhopal survivors on their merits, only on jurisdictional and procedural grounds," Mr Edwards said.

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