Twenty Years Later, Bhopal Toxic Disaster Drags On

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 30, 2004 (ENS) - No one has been held accountable for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak and little has been done to aid the survivors, Amnesty International said Monday.

The international community and the Indian government have failed to protect the human rights of the people living in and nearby Bhopal, according to the international human rights group, and the owners of the plant have evaded responsibility for the world's worst industrial disaster.

The continuing tragedy at Bhopal illustrates the need for "a universal human rights framework that can be applied directly to companies," Amnesty International says.

The plea comes in a new Amnesty International report on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. bhopalwomen

The Bhopal plant site has yet to be cleaned up or decontaminated. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
During the early hours of December 3, 1984, more than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) pesticide manufacturing facility in the central Indian city.

As it escaped, the gas moved across adjacent communities killing thousands of people and injuring many thousands more - some 500,000 were exposed.

The death toll now stands at some 20,000 and more than 100,000 people continue to suffer the effects of exposure to the gas

The site has never been detoxified and toxic wastes still pollute the environment and contaminate water used by surrounding communities for drinking.

"A generation on, survivors are still waiting for just compensation and adequate medical care," said Benedict Southworth, campaigns director at Amnesty International. "UCC - and Dow who merged with UCC in 2001 - have still not cleaned up the site or stopped pollution that started when the plant opened in the 1970s, meaning local residents are continuing to fall ill from drinking contaminated water."

Both Dow and UCC both deny legal responsibility. Union Carbide Corporation has refused to appear before Indian courts to face trial. bhopalwomen

Survivors of the Bhopal gas leak the day after the disaster. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The Amnesty International report details that UCC stored large amounts of extremely hazardous chemical in bulk, failed to set up an emergency plan to warn local residents, and ignored warnings about the possibility of a chemical reaction similar to that which caused the leak.

In 2002, documents unearthed in the process of a class action suit against Union Carbide in New York revealed that the company knowingly exported untested and hazardous technology to Bhopal. That case is still pending.

Amnesty International says the company also withheld information critical to the medical treatment of the victims.

"UCC was responsible for a litany of failures in the period leading up to the gas leak," Southworth said. "Bhopal shows how readily some companies can evade their human rights responsibilities."

That evasion would not be possible without the tacit approval of governments, according to the report, which alleges that Indian authorities failed to adequately protect their citizens both before and after the disaster.

The 1989 settlement reached with UCC by the Indian government has been widely condemned as inadequate.

"As well as excluding the victims from the process, the settlement capped UCC's liability at $470 million before the claims had been categorized and the full extent of damages estimated," the report said.

Independent estimates determined that the claims connected to the leak total more than $3 billion.

Bureaucratic barriers and corruption have precluded many victims from receiving any compensation, the report said, and two-thirds of the settlement money "still has to be disbursed by the Indian government." BeeandShukla

Activists Rashida Bee (left) and Champa Devi Shukla were awarded the 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize for their grassroots efforts to hold Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide accountable for the 1984 gas disaster. (Photo courtesy EPA)
In July 2004, the Indian Supreme Court cleared the way for this remaining money to be disbursed. The total breaks down to an estimated $570 for each survivor.

Amnesty International is urging the Indian government to prevent further damage to public health by ensuring that Dow cleans up the site and fully compensates the victims. The international organization is calling for a full assessment of the health and environmental impacts by the Indian government.

The report said the failures at Bhopal showcase the need for global human rights standards for corporations and to come to grips with the scope and power of transnational companies.

"Voluntary codes of conduct, while a welcome sign of corporate commitment, have proved insufficient," the report said.

A 2003 statement by the United Nations that outlined the human rights responsibilities, known as the UN Norms, is "an important step in this direction," Southworth said. "But to hold companies accountable and prevent disasters like Bhopal happening again, it is imperative to have enforceable standards that guarantee redress for victims."

The Amnesty Internation report on Bhopal can be found here.