Bhopal Case

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In December 1984, a gas leak of approximately forty metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in as many as 3,000 deaths and injuries to thousands. MIC, an organic chemical used in the production of pesticides, is a volatile liquid that reacts violently with water. MIC is highly toxic to humans and short-term exposure can cause respiratory diseases, if not death, and can seriously affect reproduction. The circumstances and results of what was the industrial accident with the largest death toll in history has been widely used as a case study in engineering design and technology management.

Union Carbide of India, Limited (UCIL), a company controlled by U. S.-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), operated the Bhopal plant. UCC provided the basic plant design, supervised its engineering, and defined its operating procedures. Prior to the catastrophe, the plant had been losing money for several years due to weak demand in India for pesticides. This resulted in major personnel reductions, particularly in production and maintenance. At the time of the accident, the plant had been shut down for more than a month for a complete maintenance overhaul. Important safety devices were out of commission and personnel with no MIC training were in supervisory roles. Consequently, when a large amount of water entered an MIC tank due to a mistake during normal maintenance procedures (according to the Indian government version of events), the ensuing reaction caused a large gas leak; defects in the MIC unit and a lack of staff safety training prevented containment.

Developing countries often lack the infrastructure to safely support and maintain complex technologies. Companies based in countries such as India offer cheap labor and low operating costs for multinational corporations, but little incentive to promote environmental quality, safety procedures, and community investment (Bowonder, Kasperson, and Kasperson 1994). Increased risks posed by establishment of a MIC production unit close to slum colonies were never recognized by either UCIL or the Indian government.

UCC maintained safety standards at the Bhopal plant well below those at a sister plant in West Virginia; computerized data loggers, for example, were not employed at Bhopal. Furthermore, there was no attempt to follow up and implement safety recommendations of an Operational Safety survey conducted by a UCC team in 1982 (Shrivastava 1994). Specific safety problems that contributed to the disaster included: unreliable temperature and pressure gauges; the leaking MIC storage tank was filled beyond recommended capacity; a reserve storage tank for excess MIC already contained MIC; the community warning system had been shut down; a refrigeration unit that keeps MIC at low temperatures had been shut down; the gas scrubber designed to neutralize escaping gases had been shut down; the flare tower intended to burn off any MIC escaping from the scrubber had both a design defect and had been shut down; a water curtain intended to neutralize any remaining gas was too short to reach the top of the flare tower, where the gas exited (Patel 1997).

According to some observers, UCIL (and UCC) showed disregard for victims of the catastrophe, prolonging their suffering through failing to deal with their immediate needs. When MIC was released, the public alarm was not sounded until hours later. UCIL provided misleading information on treatment for toxic effects of MIC, resulting in inadequate treatment by local physicians. UCC blamed local workers for sabotage and conducted a media blitz to divert attention from the corporation (Morehouse and Subramaniam 1986).

The UCC strategy for negotiations focused on a fixed settlement. UCC fought hard to ensure the legal battle took place in India and the lawsuits filed in U.S. courts were rejected on the basis that the catastrophe occurred in India, the victims were Indian, and the plant was run by UCIL, an Indian subsidiary of UCC. In 1985, the Indian government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, which made the government sole representative of all claimants. Later, using this act, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Scheme emerged, further controlling registration, processing, and future compensation (Patel 1997).

UCC eventually settled out of court for $470 million, in the process denying any legal liability. To reciprocate, the Indian Supreme Court provided immunity from any future prosecution. A subsequent change in government prompted the court case to be reopened. Criminal proceedings against UCC and Warren Anderson (UCC Chairman at the time of the accident) have been pending in India since 1992. Under Indian law, the company has been deemed "fugitive" and India seized assets of UCIL to benefit victims of the catastrophe (Appleson 1999).

The Bhopal disaster illuminates ethical issues throughout the chain of development of a technology, from the decision to build and operate a hazardous facility in a developing region that lacked the technical and institutional infrastructure to properly support it, to design decisions that compromised the plant's margin of safety, to failure to properly operate and maintain the plant. Perhaps the most troubling aspect from an ethical perspective is the failure of both industry and government to look beyond the legal issues and adequately confront the human suffering caused by the accident.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics.


Bowonder, B.; Jeanne X. Kasperson; and Roger E. Kasperson. (1994). "Industrial Risk Management in India Since Bhopal." In Learning From Disaster, ed. Sheila Jasanoff. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Review of basic issues in industrial hazards management and disaster prevention and the impact of the Bhopal catastrophe on industrial risk management practices in India.

Morehouse, Ward, and M. Arun Subramaniam. (1986). The Bhopal Tragedy. New York: Council on International and Public Affairs. Critical examination of the history and conditions that led to the Bhopal disaster and industry and government attitudes that put U.S. chemical workers at risk; strategies for preventing future disasters.

Shrivastava, Paul. (1994). "Societal Contradictions and Industrial Crises." In Learning From Disaster, edited by Sheila Jasanoff. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Uses Bhopal as case study to explore contradictory societal demands on technology and their role in causing and escalating social and economic crises arising from industrial accidents.


Appleson, Gail. (1999). "Bhopal Victims Sue Union Carbide Over '84 Disaster." Available from News story on victims' lawsuit; the site is maintained by a clinic in Bhophal sponsored by a charitable trust.

Patel, Trupti. (1997). "TED Case Studies: Bhopal Disaster." Available from Trade and Environment Database (TED) is an online compilation of environment-related case materials maintained by the Mandala Projects at American University.