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Bhopal Residents Bring Toxic Warnings

by Rick Steelhammer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Sarita Malviya wasn't born when an explosion at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, 1984, sent a cloud of deadly gas containing the compound methyl isocyanate into the old section of the city, searing the lungs and causing the deaths of at least 4,000 people.

Sarita Malviya, 16, of Bhopal, India, tells an audience at West Virginia State University that contaminated drinking water and a birth-defect rate five times the national average are among the lingering effects of a 1984 MIC release from a Carbide chemical plant that killed thousands in her hometown. (photo: Kenny Kemp) When her family moved to Bhopal years after the world's worst industrial disaster, "we had no idea that Union Carbide left toxic waste in three ponds," she said through an interpreter.

Heavy metals and toxins were seeping into the groundwater, she said, contaminating drinking water used by 30,000 people, including members of her family.

"Now, all my family has medical problems," she said. "The skin peels off my hands every four or five weeks, and my hands are always sweaty and cold."

Two years ago at the age of 14, she became a founding member of Children Against Dow/Carbide, an organization trying to force the former chemical giant and the company that bought it to fix lingering environmental problems and fund the study of related public health issues.

"On the night of the Bhopal disaster, 40 tons of MIC was being stored by Union Carbide," Malviya said to a group of West Virginia State University students and residents of the Institute-West Dunbar area gathered at the Wilson Student Union Building on Friday.

"I understand more than 100 tons are being stored by the factory here. I can only imagine what would happen to a community like this if that much MIC was released."

Malviya was one of three Bhopal area residents who spoke during Friday's meeting, sponsored by People Concerned About MIC. Their appearance is part of a 25-city tour of the United States taking place on the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, sponsored by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

Also speaking were Safreen Khan, also 16, and Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

The three were all aware of last August's explosion at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant, which killed two workers and narrowly missed damaging a container of MIC.

"On the day of the Bhopal explosion, a refrigeration system that cost $30 a day to operate was turned off and a runoff tank wasn't working," Malviya said. "We have to learn from what happened in Bhopal. We fear that the company operating here, Bayer, will make a second Bhopal here."

Khan said both her parents were exposed to MIC on the night of the Bhopal explosion.

"I have seen a factory here that is almost double the size of the Bhopal factory," she said. "It saddens me that similar things are being done here. ...Maybe I don't understand all the complexities of the issues, but I wonder why the people in this community are not fighting. Who really needs these toxic chemicals?"

Dhingra said that no medical monitoring is being done in the Bhopal area by the Indian government or by the chemical companies, despite a birth defect rate five times the national average.

"Studies done as recently as 2008 show high levels of heavy metals like mercury in the soil. A plastic liner in one of the Union Carbide waste pits breeched, allowing toxins to seep into the ground water."

Dhingra urged those attending the meeting to contact members of their congressional delegation to urge them to hold hearings on the Bayer explosion.

"There was an explosion at the Bhopal plant two years before the 1984 disaster," she said. An engineer had warned that a disaster could happen but was transferred, and a journalist who did the same was sued.

Unless people let their elected officials know how they feel about chemical plant safety, "no one will care," she said.

Bayer spokesman Tom Dover issued a statement regarding the Bhopal Survivors event, which began by extending the company's sympathies to "all those affected by the tragic incident in Bhopal in 1984."

That incident, according to the statement, "emphasizes that safe production must be the primary objective at all chemical manufacturing sites throughout the world. The Institute site has multiple levels of prevention and safety measures using modern technologies to help ensure our safe production. The safety of our employees and the community remains our highest priority."

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