Written By Rebant Patodi (Grade 9)
2nd December, 1984 is a day that India can never forget, it was when the Bhopal Gas Tragedy occurred. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy occurred on the night of 2nd December in the year 1984.
A chemical Methane Isocyanate, broke out from the factory of Union Carbide India Limited in Bhopal. UCIL was a pesticide factory. In less than a few hours the pesticide factory turned Bhopal into an enormous gas chamber. This was India’s first major industrial disaster. At least 30 tonnes (30,000 kilos) of Methyl Isocyanate broke out which had an adverse impact on the people. More than 15,000 people were killed and 558,125 people were affected. This was the world’s first industrial disaster.
Warnings before the tragedy
The factory was given many warnings but no action was taken. In the year 1969, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) was established for the production of a pesticide, Sevin, using Methyl Isocyanate as the intermediate. In the year 1976, trade unions in Bhopal complained of pollution within the plant. A few years later a worker accidentally inhaled a large amount of toxic phosgene gas as he was carrying out a maintenance job in plant’s pipes, he panicked and removed his mask because of which he inhaled a large amount of phosgene which eventually lead to his death within a few hours.
Observing all of these events. A journalist named Rajkumar Keswani began investigating the plant and he published an article in the local newspaper of Bhopal stating “Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!”.
Two years before the tragedy occurred in the month of January, a phosgene leak occurred which exposed 24 workers, all of them were rushed and admitted to a hospital.
In February 1982, a Methane Isocyanate gas (MIC) leak occurred and affected 18 workers. That’s not all. In August 1982, a chemical engineer also came into contact with the MIC liquid. This resulted in burns over 30% of his body.
In October 1982, there was another MIC leak. To stop the leak, a supervisor had severe burns, and two other workers who were working with him were severely exposed to the gas. During 1983 and 1984, there were a series of leaks of the following gases: Carbon Tetra Chloride, chlorine, monomethyl amine, phosgene and MIC.
How did the tragedy happen?
The UCIL factory in Bhopal had about 68,000 liters of MIC stored in each tank. In total there were three tanks which were E610, E611, and E619. Months before the tragedy occurred MIC was being filled in the tanks for the production of the fertilizer Sevin. No tank was allowed to store more than 50% of the tank’s capacity (30 tones) and the tank was pressurized with Nitrogen in order to keep moisture and impurities out of the tank.
In late October 1984 tank E610 had lost its ability to contain most of the nitrogen gas pressure. This meant that the liquid MIC contained could not be pumped out. During the time of this failure, tank E610 contained 42 tonnes of liquid MIC (More than 50% of it was filled). Shortly after the failure, the production of MIC was stopped temporarily and many parts of the plant were shut down for maintenance.
The maintenance included the plant’s flare tower in order to repair the corroded pipes. A flare tower is a gas combustion device used in chemical plants, petroleum refineries, etc. Despite the flare tower still being under maintenance, the production of chemicals was resumed by late November and MIC was being stored in the other two tanks. The factory made an attempt to re-establish the pressure in tank E610 on 1st December but this also had failed and the 42 tons of liquid MIC contained within tank E610 could not be pumped out.
Now, most of the plant’s MIC-related safety system was malfunctioning and most of the valves, pipes, and lines were in terrible condition. The vent gas scrubber and the steam boilers which were needed to clean the pipes were damaged. It’s believed that in the late evenings of 2nd December water had entered the pipe. Because of this, a runaway exothermic reaction took place and the gas escaped into the atmosphere. The flare tower was used to burn the MIC gas and it had its connecting pipe removed for maintenance, but after maintenance, the pipe was improperly shut and the gas could not be burned because of which it escaped into the atmosphere.
Effects of the tragedy
There was a severe effect of the MIC gas. When the factory called the hospital and informed them about the MIC gas leak, the doctors said that they were not aware of the proper cure for this which was a huge problem. This tragedy shook everyone in India. Methyl isocyanate gas leak had killed more than 15,000 people and it had affected more than 6,00,000 people. The gas leak blinded the people, choked their breathing, and suffocated them. It not impacted not only humans but also trees and animals. In a short period of time trees in the nearby area became barren. People vomited and died on the streets. The situation was so bad and so many people died that the city ran out of cremation grounds.
The Indian Government had never dealt with a disaster as fatal as this. They passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985. It acted as the legal representative for victims of the tragedy. The UCC had initially offered $5 million as a relief fund to India, but the Indian government had turned down the offer and they demanded $3.3 billion. As a result, the problem was taken to the court in February 1989, UCC agreed to pay $470 million for the damages caused by the tragedy. The Supreme Court of India also had laid down guidelines for money for the family of the dead. They were to be given between Rs 1,00,000-3,00,000. The fully or partially disabled people were going to receive money between Rs 50,000-5,00,000 and the people with a temporary injury were going to receive money between Rs 25,000-1,00,000.
I can’t imagine what would have happened to the people back then. Seeing so many people dying is a sight that I wouldn’t want to see. While I was doing my research, researching about all of this was really heart-wrenching.
Featured Image Courtesy – The Economic Times