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Twenty Years Later, Bhopal Disaster Still Plagues City; Global Day of Action Planned for December 3, 2004
(Beyond Pesticides, November 29, 2004)
Twenty years after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, thousands of people around the city remain at risk of poisoning, an investigation by the BBC has revealed. The 1984 blast and toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide factory disaster led to the deaths of more than 20,000 people, and more than 120,000 people still suffer from severe health problems as a result of their exposure. Drinking water taken from a well near the site recently showed contamination 500 times greater than limits set by the World Health Organization.

Union Carbide India Ltd. was responsible for cleaning up the site, "but thousands of tonnes of toxic waste are still stored inadequately nearby, poisoning the town's water supply," the BBC said

The company said in 1998 when the cleanup was completed that it "found no evidence of groundwater contamination." But the BBC said it discovered pools of mercury on the ground, areas laden with poisonous material and in some sheds, dangerous chemical waste in bags. "The local people who drink this water every day are exposing themselves to a substantial chemical hazard associated, over time, with liver and kidney damage," BBC said.

Rainwater washes these chemicals into puddles, streams and eventually into the groundwater, contaminating water that people drink. BBC television ran the report after conducting its own investigation, but added that the test results were disputed by the US firm Union Carbide, which owned the plant that exploded and enveloped the city in toxic gas on December 3, 1984.

As the 20th anniversary approaches this week, courts in Bhopal face a decision on whether officials of the American Dow Chemical Company, which later merged with the plant's owners, Union Carbide, should face criminal charges - including manslaughter - over the disaster. Dow, which bought the American-owned Union Carbide in 1999, maintains that it has no liability for the disaster and has refused to address Carbide's pending liabilities in Bhopal, including medical and economic rehabilitation of victims, clean up of toxic wastes and contaminated groundwater, and provision of safe drinking water.

Union Carbide settled a civil suit in 1989 by agreeing to pay victims a total of $470 million. Disaster victims have appealed to the Indian Supreme court in recent months because only part of that money was given to the victims. Last month, the Supreme Court ordered the rest of the money to be disbursed. It also accepted an estimate by victims groups that the number of people affected by the disaster had increased from the 105,000 listed in 1989 to 572,000 with new births and previously unreported cases, reported the Associated Press.

However, groups still feel that the compensation is extremely inadequate. “The Supreme Court decision is a victory of the gas victims, but they are not satisfied" with the compensation amount, said Abdul Jabbar, the main spokesman for the victims. He said that victims groups brought a petition this week to the Supreme Court demanding that the compensation be at least quadrupled to match the increase in the number of people affected. It was not clear when the Supreme Court would rule on the appeal. It was also unclear where the groups expected the additional money to come from.

TAKE ACTION: Activists are planning a Global Day of Action for Bhopal this Friday, December 3. To learn more about Bhopal, the actions that they are taking, and how to get involved, visit www.bhopal.net. Last year, over 65 groups and individuals took part in the Day of Action, which included nationwide student protests (read Daily News 12/4/03).