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A killing wind: inside Union Carbide and the Bhopal catastrophe.

A Killing Wind: Inside Union Carbide and the Bhopal Castrophe.

It is now three years since a deadly cloud of methyl isocynate gas drifted from a Union Carbide pesticide plant over Bhopal, India, sending tens of thousands of gasping residents fleeing in horror. It remains the world's worst technological disaster, far more lethal and in many ways more ominous than the more highly publicized accidents last year--the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Chernobyl nuclear plant breakdown. Yet unlike Challenger and Chernobyl, the events in Bhopal have never received anything approaching the exhaustive investigation, much less media scrutiny, they deserve. Today, such basic questions as what caused the accident and how many died remain in dispute. As for the victims, anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 still suffer from blurred vision, disabling lung diseases, intestinal bleeding, and neurological and psychological disorders.

Who is to blame for the Bhopal catastrophe? Carbide, the multibillion dollar multinational based in Danbury, Connecticut, has always maintained that operation and responsibility for the Bhopal plant resided solely with its Indian affiliate, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), which was 50.9 percent owned by its American parent. Yet, as Dan Kurzman points out, safety conditions at Bhopal were long known to be deplorable --and the corporate chieftains in Danbury had every reason to know it.* Indeed, the similarities to Challenger are eerie. As far back as 1979, a team of safety investigators from Danbury criticized the lack of an emergency evacuation plan. Three years later, another safety team warned of the dangers of a "runaway reaction' in a methyl isocynate storage tank. Carbide assumed the inspectors' recommendations were being implemented by its Indian managers. Nobody ever checked to find out.

* A Killing Wind: Inside Union Carbide and the Bhopal Castrophe. Dan Kurzman. McGraw-Hill, $19.95

On the other hand, the Indian government hardly comes off any better. Kurzman discloses that numerous Indian officials had close ties to UCIL, helping the company escape regulatory crackdowns. (Cronyism and conflicts of interest know no boundaries: Kurzman reports that a local Congress-I party leader was UCIL's legal adviser. Several relatives of ranking government officials were on the UCIL payroll, including the manager of the Bhopal plant, who was the son-in-law of Rajiv Gandhi's minister of human resources.)

But the real disgrace was the Indian government's actions following the accident. Early last year, Union Carbide offered a $350 million settlement, a not unreasonable sum that, more importantly, would have given compensation and substantial medical help to the survivors right away. But Gandhi's government torpedoed the deal and cut off negotiations, fearing it would be roasted by left-wing critics. So the case has dragged on another year and a half in the Indian courts through four different judges. (One had to be disqualified when he was discovered to be a secret plaintiff.) As Kurzman states, the Bhopal survivors have "been victimized twice--once by posion and again by politics.'

Kurzman did yeoman research for this book, visiting Bhopal and interviewing scores of victims as well as Indian and Carbide officials. His portrait of Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson is particularly devastating. Immediately after the disaster Anderson insisted on personally flying to Bhopal, where he was promptly arrested by local officials. He returned to the U.S., telling the press that he would be consumed by Bhopal for the rest of his career. (Anderson even shunned restaurants fearing he would be recognized and blamed for the mass destruction.) That obsession didn't last long. By late 1985, Anderson's main concerns had shifted to fighting off a hostile corporate raider and nailing down a golden parachute for himself. He retired last year barely mentioning Bhopal in a farewell speech touting the company's earnings.

Kurzman does make at least one important contribution: by carefully reviewing the statistics from the city's crematoriums and cemetaries,

particularly in the two years after the accident, he argues persuasively that the actual death toll approached 8,000--more than three times the Indian government's official tally of 2,500.

But this book should not stand as the definitive account of the tragedy. Kurzman never finds a focus for his story and his writing is riddled with cliches. More importantly, he has few answers for many of the unresolved questions about Bhopal. Did cyanide--the most deadly of all poisons-- also leak from the Carbide plant that night and substantially swell the death toll? And what, in the end, actually caused the accident? Carbide has charged sabotage, pointing the finger at times at unidentified "Sikh terrorists' or a disgruntled worker. Most readers will find it difficult to sift through the highly technical arguments on both sides of these issues. Apparently so did Kurzman. He merely gives the pros and cons, never forming any conclusions. That may be appropriate for daily journalism, but it is a rather annoying failure in a book purporting to tell what really happened at Bhopal.
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Author:Isikoff, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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