Friday, November 19, 2004

BHOPAL, India — Like a phantom, the poison first came on a breeze. When tank No. 610 blew at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984, it unleashed a milky fog that would extinguish more than 15,000 lives in this ancient city.

Two decades later, residents say, a second poisonous onslaught brews underground. Rainwater, they say, has washed an assortment of toxins left at the decaying Union Carbide factory into the groundwater of the same slums, and people drink from tainted wells there.

On a recent afternoon in Atal Ayub Nagar, the worst polluted slum, a circle of women waited their turns to fill plastic jugs at a well, while two grimy boys hunched shin-deep in a tiny black pond and fished out discarded cookies. Several studies have shown the neighborhood’s water to contain a cocktail of poisons such as lead, mercury and organic compounds known to attack the liver, kidney and nervous system.

Inam Ullah, crouching on the porch of his hut, says his body has lost 30 pounds since he moved to the colony 12 years ago. With intestinal pain sapping the strength needed to push his vegetable cart, the frail 50-year-old withdrew his two boys from school and put them to work as day laborers. He thinks it is the water that plagues his stomach and that killed his wife last year.

“My wife has died,” said Mr. Ullah, his dark eyes glassy. “We will die also.”

Bhopal, a city once known for its jungles, glistening lakes and the resplendent Taj-ul-Masjid, one of India’s biggest mosques, is better known now as the city of poison. A generation after history’s deadliest industrial disaster, Bhopal’s slum dwellers say they continue to suffer from the effects of the toxins of Union Carbide, an American firm that is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co.

In the years after the gas leak, as Bhopal sought to grasp what had happened, few paid close attention to the toxic mess left at the abandoned factory. Some cleanup was performed — Union Carbide says $2 million was spent on waste removal in the first 10 years after the disaster — yet it remains a seeping industrial sore.

Strewn across the ghastly 90-acre landscape of rusted pipes and crumbled warehouses lie hundreds of tons of pesticides and other poisons stored in open drums and heaps of splitting white sacks.

Two studies by the Madhya Pradesh state government in the 1990s and three more in recent years by independent groups — the most notable conducted by the Greenpeace Research Laboratory at the University of Exeter in Britain — found severe groundwater pollution and attributed it to the Union Carbide plant’s waste.

The company rejects those conclusions.

Spokesman Tom F. Sprick said the Connecticut-based firm trusts instead a 1997 survey by India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute that judged the water to be untainted. The company’s own consulting firm, Arthur D. Little, which oversaw the institute’s study, warned, however, that its tests were not comprehensive and that the water may not be safe to drink.

In a door-to-door survey last year of sections surrounding the factory, the gas victim charity Sambhavna Trust found residents stricken by a variety of toxin-related ailments, including anemia, headaches, menstrual disorders and stomach and chest pains, said its director, Satinath Sarangi, who attributed the problems to the toxins. Severe cases included cancer and growth and mental disorders in children, he added.

In India’s many poverty-ridden slums, it is hard to distinguish toxin-induced illnesses from others. But Mohammed ali Qaiser, a doctor at one of Sambhavna’s two clinics, which he said treats about 70 toxin victims daily, says he has little doubt that water pollution is behind much of the sickness.

“The water is obviously contaminated,” said Dr. Qaiser. “People not residing in affected areas are not having these kinds of problems.”

The state government took note of the health hazard in the late 1990s when it began trucking big, black barrels of water into affected slums. The effort, though, proved fitful. Last summer, the state provided less than 10 percent of the amount of water needed to survive, according to a survey by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

“Everyone drinks the [well] water,” said Atal Ayub Nagar resident Salma Bee, a mother of seven, describing the taste as bitter. “We have no other choice.”

Neither Madhya Pradesh, which owns the factory property, nor Union Carbide accepts responsibility for the waste cleanup, estimated to cost at least $25 million. Mr. Sprick, the Union Carbide spokesman, says the company’s liability ended in 1994 when it severed ties with its Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited, which had leased the property. However, state officials consider both companies responsible.

“Our view is that polluters should remove damage that has been done,” said Iqbal Ahmed, an official with Bhopal’s Gas Relief Department.

Many Bhopal activists say a pro-industry mind-set among officials in the national capital, New Delhi, has kept them from pursuing Union Carbide, whose parent company, Dow, is a top investor in the country.

The head of New Delhi’s Bhopal disaster office, Ramesh Inder Singh, said the issue has languished for so long only because the legal nightmare that followed the disaster — more than 1 million claims were lodged — has kept the office paralyzed.

This summer, New Delhi endorsed a lawsuit under way in New York brought by Bhopal victims against Union Carbide that seeks to compel the company to clean the site and pay damages to victims. The U.S. court had required India’s permission to proceed with the case.

Himanshu Rajan Sharma, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he believes Union Carbide has judged the lives of poor people in distant countries to be expendable.

“Carbide’s handling of the whole Bhopal issue is a travesty,” Mr. Sharma wrote in an e-mail message.

“If that disaster or even the subsequent contamination had occurred elsewhere — in Europe or the United States — I very much doubt that Union Carbide would have had the temerity to behave with the disregard and contempt that it has shown to the victims in this instance.”

The firm’s relationship with India was at first presented as part a noble enterprise — to rescue the agricultural nation from widespread hunger. The factory in Bhopal, an overnight train ride from New Delhi, was opened in 1969, when Indian officials believed pesticides would wipe out the country’s crop-devouring insects. Union Carbide set about creating 2,500 tons per year of pesticides derived from a deadly blend of chemicals, the most potent of which was methyl isocyanate.

Although the company blames the gas leak on nameless saboteurs, Indian investigators have attributed it to a combination of shoddy supervision and design flaws.

All agree, though, that somehow water was introduced into a tank holding 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, setting off a reaction that burst a valve.

In the first minutes of Dec. 3, 1984, the gas moved through neighboring slums where families had bundled up for bed. It destroyed their lungs, hearts and brains, killing at least 3,000 that night, leaving thousands more to their lingering deaths in the weeks and years to follow.

A few blocks from the Union Carbide factory gates, Mohammed Yunus, 38, removes his shirt to reveal a body covered with lesions caused when the poison gas washed over his skin 20 years ago.

Mr. Yunus said his meager compensation payments have been spent and he no longer can afford the cheap antibiotic pills that had once suppressed the disease.

Union Carbide settled all gas-leak claims in 1989, when it paid a lump sum of $470 million in an out-of-court settlement with the Indian government. Mr. Yunus, like most of the more than half-million successful claimants to the money, received about $550.

That amount is expected to grow soon. An Indian court has ordered an additional $345 million from the settlement to be distributed to victims; it sat for 15 years in government coffers earning interest.

Although victims complain that the government accepted too little to cover the medical costs of lifelong illnesses, the Union Carbide Web site defends the sum paid as “much larger than any previous damage award in India, and $120 million more than plaintiff’s lawyers had told U.S. courts was fair.”

“Union Carbide has nothing but the highest respect and compassion for the people of Bhopal,” Mr. Sprick, the company spokesman, wrote in an e-mail, noting that the company also provided $90 million for a hospital in Bhopal to treat the victims.

But no amount of money can assuage the anger many survivors continue to feel toward Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s chief executive officer at the time of the disaster, now in his 80s and retired.

They are galled, they say, that he has never faced judgment for his role in the disaster. Last year, New Delhi sought to extradite Mr. Anderson from the United States to face charges of culpable homicide in a Bhopal court, but U.S. authorities rejected the request on technical grounds.

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