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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bhopal Today

Air Date: Week of

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The worst industrial accident the world has ever seen happened more than 17 years ago in Bhopal, India. Host Steve Curwood talks with Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing health and environmental problems around the accident site.


CURWOOD: Eighteen years ago the deadliest chemical accident in history occurred in Bhopal, India. Over two days in December 1984, clouds of lethal gas escaped from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killing thousands of residents. Eventually the Indian government negotiated an out-of-court settlement and some money has been distributed to victims. But health problems and environmental contaminations still continue to plague Bhopal. Paul Watson, the South Asia bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, visited the accident site, which he describes as a rusting hulk.

WATSON: You can see the towers, similar to the one where the December 1984 leak occurred from. They’re rusting through in parts. There are old warehouses, and storage areas with broken windows, bags of what appears to be chemicals, or old pesticides that have been broken open, and are spilling out onto the floor. We didn’t have a long time to look around in there because there were guards stationed at the gate, which we had to work our way past.

CURWOOD: What’s the security like there? Are kids kept out of the area and that sort of thing? Or can anyone just walk right through it?

WATSON: That is the strange thing. We got a lot of attention as journalists on the site trying to find out what state it was in and taking photographs and such. But if you cross the road to a very large containment pond, which was used for years to dump raw chemicals in so that they could evaporate, children walk through it and play in this large pond. We counted at least a dozen, in two separate groups, wading waste-deep in this stuff. There were no security guards or police there to stop them.

CURWOOD: What are some of the chemicals that are in the area now?

WATSON: Well, this is another mystery so many years after. It was methyl isocyanide gas that leaked from the plant, which caused so many deaths. But to this day, Union Carbide insists that it is a trade secret, the formula for the chemicals which were used there. So people have done, from various different groups, analysis of the soil and the water and determined, in some studies, that there were probably about 65 different chemicals that were involved in the gas leak itself.

CURWOOD: What’s the health situation for people around Bhopal? I know some activist groups contend that ten or fifteen people still die every month as a result of the accident and ongoing contamination.

WATSON: There were more than a million people who made claims that their health had been affected by it. Tribunals, which were set up by the Indian government to hear these claims, rejected more than half of those. The only scientific studies into the longer-term effects, such as birth defects, cancers and other suspected illnesses, were being carried out by a state-run Indian medical institution. And about six years ago, unceremoniously, the plug was pulled on that research. And they were looking into various things, including the suspicion of birth defects and carcinogenic effects. But also things such as the suspicion that cases of depression could be connected to the inhalation of this gas, as well as actual long-term brain damage.

CURWOOD: Why was that government research into the after-effects of the accident halted, Paul?

WATSON: No formal reason was given for it. The suggestion that’s made in court documents is that the research was going nowhere; that there wasn’t much substance to what they were finding. And therefore it wasn’t necessary to continue it. In different studies, certainly Indian experts felt they were on to something. But they weren’t allowed to continue to either conclude that it was a false fear or that it was a real fear.

CURWOOD: Paul, there was a settlement that the Indian government brokered with Union Carbide for victims of the accident back in 1989. Whatever happened to that money?

WATSON: Well, the total sum was $470 million, which was a large sum of money in those days. And in some respects still is, certainly for the people who were the main victims of this leak. If they were able to get larger than the $580 average settlements that they received, or around $1300 in the case of deaths, they would be much better off than they are. There is a mystery surrounding that $470 million. And most estimates are that more than half of it is still in the government central bank vault. That is more than half of what the $470 million would have risen to with interest. The problem is no one really knows how much of it’s left because the government has not done a full accounting, publicly, of what funds are available still. People who continue to appeal to the Supreme Court and are still fighting in the United States for more compensation insist that they’re giving out the bare minimum to these victims. And in the end, the rest of it is just disappearing.

CURWOOD: Paul Watson is the South Asia bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He joined us from New Delhi. Thanks for your time, Paul.

WATSON: Thank you.




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