5.3 Safety issues at the plant
From a consideration of the different reports, there would appear to be no substantial disagreement about the conditions of the safety systems at the plant, or the responses of the supervisors and workers after the initial MIC leak was noticed, or the insufficiency of warnings to surrounding settlements when the gas cloud formed. The inadequacy of contingency plans for the in-plant response and evacuation of the local settlements, and the poor communication with the city and state authorities, also seem broadly accepted.
Your research on the causes of the leak at Bhopal is likely to have revealed that safety concerns over the plant existed for some years before the leak. These can be summarised as concerns about:
- the inherent toxicity and instability of the chemical products used and stored at Bhopal
- the design of the plant
- the effect of cost-cutting measures on the operation of the plant, such as the maintenance of equipment and the effectiveness of safety systems designed to prevent a leak.
Chapter 3 of the Amnesty International 2004 report, Clouds of Injustice, Bhopal 20 Years On, provides a comprehensive summary of the various decisions taken by UCC and UCIL and the cost-cutting measures undertaken at the plant before the gas leak. In particular, it provides a comparison of the safety measures employed in Bhopal with those used in the UCC plant in West Virginia, USA.
There had been local concern about the safety of the plant before the events of December 1984. Various health and safety issues had occurred at the plant in the years before the gas leak and a series of local newspaper articles had expressed concern about the risks created at the plant. Many commentators on Bhopal have highlighted two incidents as having particular significance when assessing the culpability of UCC for the gas leak. In May 1982, after several incidents at the Bhopal plant, a team of UCC technicians carried out an operational safety survey and noted various lapses in safety regulations (Operational safety survey Co/MIC/Sevin units, Union Carbide India Ltd, Bhopal Plant UCC, July 1982).
Then, in September 1984, an operational safety/health survey of the USA plant raised the concern that a runaway reaction could occur in one of the MIC unit storage tanks and that any response to such a situation would not be timely or effective enough to prevent a catastrophic failure of the tank (Operational Safety/Health survey: MIC II Unit Institute Plant 10, September 1984). The report identified that water from a leak was a factor that would hasten a runaway reaction.
It would appear that little or no action was taken either by UCC or UCIL to address the issues raised in these reports.