60 days after the gulf oilspill, BP agrees to $20 billion US dollars of compensation and clean up money. Meanwhile, 25 years later, victims of the Bhopal gas leak in India are still fighting for adequate compensation. Scriptonite puts the spotlight on this less reported case and asks: has health and safety really gone mad?
This week Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has confirmed the company is to put US$20 billion in an independently administered fund for cleanup and compensation costs related to the gas explosion which sank the Transocean Deepwater Horizon deepsea oil rig on April 20th this year. 11 workers on the rig lost their lives and triggering environmental disaster. Hundreds of millions of galls of oil have leaked (and continue to leak) into the Gulf and is washing the shores and habitats of 4 states. The 40% methane content of the oil drilled at this depth also means that oxygen levels in the ocean have depleted between 2 and 30 percent in the affected area (which by the way, depending on the currents of the day between the size of Luxembourg and the size of Wales). the small microbes that live in the sea have been feeding on the oil and natural gas in the water and are consuming larger quantities of oxygen, which they need to digest food. As they draw more oxygen from the water, it creates two problems. When oxygen levels drop low enough, the breakdown of oil grinds to a halt; and as it is depleted in the water, most life can’t be sustained. This may well result in hideous outcomes for the marine life ranging from suffocation, long term ‘dead zones’ where no life is possible, and in the words of David Garrison, project director for the US federal governments National Science Foundation’s Biological Oceanography Program:
“This has the potential to harm the ecosystem in ways that we don’t know“
BP’s Rap Sheet
The bitter pill currently being swallowed by tired environmentalists, newly redundant fishermen and tourism workers, and grieving families is that key cost cutting decisions and a blatant disregard for health and safety brought this otherwise entirely avoidable disaster to the world.
Firstly, the US coastguard has issued 18 citations for pollution against Deepwater Horizon since 2000 and investigated no fewer than SIXTEEN fires and other incidents. It has been reported that multiple oil rig workers and managers aboard Deepwater Horizon had expressed concern about well control and gas pressure on Deepwater Horizon from 2009 through to March and April 2010.
In fact, the rig mechanic Doug Brown has stated on record that the well had problems for months and that the drill repeatedly kicked due to high gas pressure providing resistance. The levels of gas coming up from the well were twice as high as he’d ever seen in his career.
On the day that bubble of methane blew out the drilling pipes and exploded, BP had won the argument against it’s chief driller Drewey Revette, Doug Brown and other workers. The workers were concerned at BPs choice to use sea water rather than heavy mud to suppress gas. BP wanted to use the sea water as it was quicker and therefore less costly. BP won, Doug and Drewey lost. Drewey Revette died that night.
In a final insult, the ‘failsafe’blowout preventer, designed to stop this very thing happening…failed. A bloody disgrace and no amount of money will bring back the eleven workers or directly undo the unimaginable and as yet unknown damage to the ecosystem of the Gulf and who knows where else.
What did it cost BP?
$20 billion for compensation and clean up
$8 billion wiped off the value of the company in trading
Global bad publicity including the president of the united states personal condmenation
CEO of BP cross examined by Congress and promise of a Presidential Inquiry into the incident.
Imagine if BP did this…
Small mercy – BP are having to take responsible now, and completely for what they have done.
But what if BP walked away from the rig?
What if the day after the leak, BP upped sticks and left the oil pipe still leaking leaving behind $400 million?
What if the beleaguered local economy couldn’t support rectifying the situation and the oil continued to leak, destroying the local ecosystem entirely?
What if 25 years went by and people continued to die from illnesses caused by the spill?
This would an unimaginable nightmare would it not? You may even consider simply impossible and the stuff of the apocalyptic horror movie genre. However, this is basically the situation in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
On the night of December 3rd 1984, at the majority owned Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL – a subsidiary of Union Carbide Chemicals or UCC) pesticide plant in Bhopal, a tank full of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxins, including hydrogen cyanide began to leak.
The deadly cocktail of gas covered the area and over 500,000 people were caught in the noxious cloud. The timeline below covers the main events of the night.
At the Plant
• 21:00 Water cleaning of pipes starts.
• 22:00 Water enters tank 610, reaction starts.
• 22:30 Gases are emitted from the vent gas scrubber tower.
• 00:30 The large siren sounds and is turned off.
• 00:50 The siren is heard within the plant area. The workers escape.
• 22:30 First sensations due to the gases are felt—suffocation, cough, burning eyes and vomiting.
• 1:00 Police are alerted. Residents of the area evacuate. Union Carbide director denies any leak.
• 2:00 The first people reached Hamidia hospital. Symptoms include visual impairment and blindness, respiratory difficulties, frothing at the mouth, and vomiting.
• 2:10 The alarm is heard outside the plant.
• 4:00 The gases are brought under control.
• 7:00 A police loudspeaker broadcasts: “Everything is normal”.
Aside from the thousands of immediate deaths from choking, pulmonary oedema and other such appalling ends, there were massive and quite inconceivable long term health impacts.
170, 000 people sought medical treatment the next day.
The still birth rate shot up 300%
Miscarriages rose by 200%
20,000 people have died SINCE the leak from related illnesses
There were devastating impacts on the local eco system also with over a million animal carcasses,bloated with gas needing to be disposed of and ‘dead zones’ of contamination which are no go areas for animal or plant life.
The bitter pill in this case is that Union Carbide decommissioned the site in the style of rats fleeing a sinking ship, leaving their site to continue contaminating the groundwater in the local area.
The Union Carbide Rap Sheet
• The MIC tank alarms had not worked for four years.
• Civil action suits in India as late as 1998 revealed that unlike Union Carbide plants in the US, its Indian subsidiary plants were not prepared for problems. No action plans had been established to cope with incidents of this magnitude. This included not informing local authorities of the quantities or dangers of chemicals used and manufactured at Bhopal.
• There was only one manual back-up system, compared to a four-stage system used in the US.
• The flare tower and the vent gas scrubber had been out of service for five months before the disaster. The gas scrubber therefore did not treat escaping gases with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), which might have brought the concentration down to a safe level. Even if the scrubber had been working, according to Weir, investigations in the aftermath of the disaster discovered that the maximum pressure it could handle was only one-quarter of that which was present in the accident. Furthermore, the flare tower itself was improperly designed and could only hold one-quarter of the volume of gas that was leaked in 1984.
• To reduce energy costs, the refrigeration system, designed to inhibit the volatilization of MIC, had been left idle—the MIC was kept at 20 degrees Celsius (room temperature), not the 4.5 degrees advised by the manual, and some of the coolant was being used elsewhere.
• The steam boiler, intended to clean the pipes, was out of action for unknown reasons.
• Slip-blind plates that would have prevented water from pipes being cleaned from leaking into the MIC tanks through faulty valves were not installed. Their installation had been omitted from the cleaning checklist.
• Water sprays designed to “knock down” gas leaks were poorly designed—set to 13 meters and below, they could not spray high enough to reduce the concentration of escaping gas.
• The MIC tank had been malfunctioning for roughly a week. Other tanks had been used for that week, rather than repairing the broken one, which was left to “stew”. The build-up in temperature and pressure is believed to have affected the magnitude of the gas release.
• Carbon steel valves were used at the factory, even though they corrode when exposed to acid. On the night of the disaster, a leaking carbon steel valve was found, allowing water to enter the MIC tanks. The pipe was not repaired because it was believed it would take too much time and be too expensive.
• UCC admitted in their own investigation report that most of the safety systems were not functioning on the night of December 3, 1984.
The culpability here is really not in any question whatsoever. The company outright ignored the matter of making the plant safe, in favour of making things happen more quickly and at a lower cost.
What did it Cost Union Carbide?
8 local workers convicted and given two year prison sentences and fined $2000
That’s Paltry! What’s next?
Today, the Indian Government announced that it is to reopen the case on the Bhopal Gas Leak which is acknowledged as the world worst industrial disaster.
You can get involved by donating to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and supporting this inspirational group in holding this company to account and regenerating this completely blighted area of the world.
Can’t afford to donate? Then simply retweet this story or post it to your facebook page so more people know about it. In the same way that BP was held to account by a public and a government that wouldn’t take no for an answer, Union Carbide must be too. Companies worldwide must learn that health and safety legislation is ignored at their peril – especially considering this sadly appears to be the only language they know.