The Black Box of Bhopal: A Closer Look at the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster
Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, a gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. A vigorous chemical reaction inside a methyl isocyanate (MIC) storage tank, nicknamed the "Black Box", caused most of the material to vaporize and escape. Within days, over two thousand nearby residents were confirmed dead and tens of thousands exposed to toxic gases, which would cause them untold pain and health problems for years to come.
The Black Box of Bhopal is a highly researched work that will challenge many of the public's assumptions about the disaster. It reveals new documents related to the construction and operations of the MIC plant and the internal workings of Union Carbide Corporation and its Indian subsidiary. It also critically analyzes the Indian government investigation report about the postulated cause of the gas leak. Through extensive explanation of the plant's history, scientific studies of the residue from the tank, and several flaws in the subsequent government controlled investigation, a clearer understanding of the events will be revealed that may surprise many readers.
" This insightful book stretches from an explanation of how economic and political development in India contributed to the accident through the detailed chemistry involved.... The strength of D'Silva's book is the integration of original documentation...that demostrates just how complex the relationships were between Union Carbide; Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL), the subsidiary that operated the Bhopal plant; the Indian federal government and the local government.... D'Silva's book is an excellent Bhopal resource."
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LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - lookitisheef - LibraryThing
Filled with a detailed account of events surrounding the incident, discussion of site construction, management structure/responsibilities, Union Carbide employee letters and memos, as well as an ... Read full review
The Black Box of Bhopal is a sophisticated and deeply researched analysis of the world's worst industrial disaster that unfortunately makes several critical omissions of fact, leading it inexorably to erroneous, tendentious conclusions.
The legislative environment in India (1974 Foreign Equity Regulation Act - FERA) certainly contributed to the degradation of safety at the fateful Bhopal plant, though not in the sense that is described herein.
Under FERA, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) had to reduce its share in Union Carbide India (UCIL) to no more than 40%. High technology inputs at Bhopal were enough to gain UCC some exemptions, but they were insufficient to prevent its stake dropping below 50%. To keep its majority share, therefore, UCC would have to "reduce the amount of investment... to $20.6 million", with the cuts "mainly on the Sevin project"(http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3140). To achieve the cuts, a UCC management committee ratified a reckless plan to send inferior, unproven technology to Bhopal (http://www.bhopal.net/oldsite/unproventechnology.html).
UCC took these extraordinary safety risks in order to retain its managerial control of UCIL. Through managerial control UCC was able to extract dividends, royalties and service fees from its Indian subsidiary, and retain proprietary control of its patented MIC technology.
The fact of UCC's managerial control is perhaps the greatest omission of D'Silva's book, and he is forced to ignore a plethora of court documents in order to sustain it. For example, court evidence shows it was an US-led management group, the 'Bhopal Task Force', which oversaw later cost cutting in Bhopal.
Despite the fact that "the demand is on the human out there - the plant relies heavily on manual control and checking of levels" (UCC engineer CS Tyson, author of a 1982 safety audit that found 61 hazards at the Bhopal plant), as a direct result of this cost cutting the plant's work force was brought down by half from 1980 to 1984. 150 operatives were taken off their jobs and used as floating labour. The work crew for the MIC plant was cut in half from twelve to six workers. The period of safety-training to workers in MIC plant was brought down from 6 months to 15 days. The position of MIC supervisor on the night shift was axed.
In February 1984 - 9 months before the disaster - Bhopal Task Force member JB Law, an executive with UCE, a Hong Kong based wholly owned subsidiary of UCC, boasted of having saved $1.5 million over the course of 1983 with these cuts.
Managerial control also meant technical oversight. UCC stipulated a 'design review process', whereby it would approve all designs for the Bhopal plant not originating from its US subsidiaries. It could be no other way as no business in India had any experience of ultra-hazardous MIC manufacture whatsoever.
As one result, UCC defined and sourced safety systems and controls that analysts agree played a significant role in the disaster. Proper controls and designs are imperative when working with isocyanate chemistry. But while Indian managers are criticized by D'Silva for lax maintenance, it's not acknowledged that the controls and designs placed in Bhopal by UCC were in themselves utterly unsuitable for any emergency situation.
As just one example, the Vent gas scrubber, the chief safety system, was designed to take a feed rate of 190 pounds per hour, with a maximum pressure of 15 psig. When the disaster ensued, MIC poured through the scrubber at 40,000 pounds per hour, with an average pressure of 180 psig. By contrast, the emergency scrubber at UCC's Institute, West Virginia sister plant, with a capacity of 60,000 pounds per hour, could have neutralized the escaping gases.
Extensive instrumentation, back-up systems and redundancies are all critical responsibilities in running an ultra-hazardous facility. In Bhopal, the workers eyes and noses and lungs were the leak detectors. There were few gauges and indicators of