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The Epic Story of the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster
By Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro
Warner Books, 403 pp., $25.95

Reviewed by William K. Tabb

At five minutes past midnight on December 3, 1984, a storage tank full of a volatile chemical compound exploded at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, releasing a large cloud of deadly gas into the neighboring slums. The accident is often described as the greatest industrial tragedy the world has ever known, a contention the figures certainly support: The death toll alone ultimately rose to between 20,000 and 30,000. But words such as "accident" and "tragedy" often imply a work of fate. More accurately, what happened that night was a result of Carbide's decision to cut back on necessary maintenance in order to save money at a plant that had, despite great opening fanfare, proven to be a financial disappointment. In light of what we now know about Carbide's operation -- a body of knowledge that benefits extensively from Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro's detailed examination of the disaster -- it is clear that it was not simply fate but all-too-human fallibility that led to the catastrophe.

Five Past Midnight in Bhopal

It is nearly impossible to overstate the magnitude of the event. The authorities stopped counting the dead at what most observers believe to be an unrealistic total of 1,754, but independent estimates put the number at a minimum of 8,000 -- just for the days immediately after the accident. Three out of four Bhopalis suffered from the effects of the toxic cloud. Ten to fifteen are still dying every month from illnesses that can be directly linked to exposure. No court of law has ever passed judgment on Union Carbide for what can, without exaggeration, be called a horrid crime.

In 1962, Union Carbide ran an ad in National Geographic that depicted an emaciated, dark-skinned peasant woman working her plot of dry, chapped soil with two scrawny oxen and a primitive plow. A light-skinned hand holding a test tube appears to be emerging out of the sky above, and the accompanying text explains how Carbide's science is helping to build a new India.

The ad was a perfect example of the thinking behind the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s, when the First World's chemical companies believed their products were the next best thing to a miracle and would feed the Third World. Carbide expanded its operations in India with almost missionary fervor, and in 1980 opened a factory in Bhopal to manufacture a pesticide called Sevin. Engineers called it the "beautiful plant." Locals, Carbide said, would not only benefit from the well-paying jobs at the plant, but area farmers would also benefit from the pesticide. People were told that the plant was as safe as a chocolate factory. They weren't told that exposure to even the smallest amount of methyl isocyanate (MIC), the volatile chemical used to produce Sevin, is deadly, nor that Carbide planned to ignore advice from technicians and produce MIC in large quantities.

Lapierre and Moro weave together the personal narratives of a huge cast of characters -- from Padmini Nadar, daughter of a failed and impoverished farmer, to Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster -- and end up with a book that reads like a novel. It is a gripping story. The detail in which the authors relate the teeming life of the bustees, shantytowns erected by recent migrants to Bhopal, is worthy of Dickens. The book's intensely emotional focus on the story's characters is of the sort that made Lapierre's 1985 book, City of Joy, an international bestseller. (And that also attracts the attention of Hollywood. City of Joy was made into a movie staring Patrick Swayze; it's rumored that Oliver Stone wants Penelope Cruz to play Padmini in a screen version of Five Past Midnight.)

Lapierre and Moro begin their story several years before the disaster and a 59-hour rail ride away from Bhopal in the southern state of Orissa, where the Nadar family, including eight-year-old Padmini, is forced off its tiny farm by an invasion of black aphids. They move to Bhopal as part of a desperate influx that is swelling the size of the city's slums. Padmini's father finds backbreaking work as a laborer on the railroad, making barely enough to keep the family on the edge of survival.

The Nadars, dispossessed by forces of nature beyond their control, seem like the perfect example of why India needs pesticides like Sevin. Yet almost nothing works out the way Carbide had planned. Sales of the pesticide lag behind expectations; the plant turns out to be too big for the market and thus unprofitable. An executive decision is made to save money by stinting on maintenance. Teams of competent engineers are withdrawn, and their replacements lack training. Morale declines. Pipes rust.

In October 1984, production at the plant was shut down, but on December 2, there were still 63 tons of MIC in the plant's storage tanks. The tanks hadn't been properly pressurized, and the refrigeration had been off for a month and a half. An alarm that was supposed to sound in the event of an abnormal rise in temperature had been disconnected; none of the three safety systems was operational; and one tank alone was filled (in violation of Carbide's own safety regulations) with 42 tons of MIC, too much to allow for an emergency infusion of solvent to stop any runaway chemical reactions. In short, as one German scientist puts it, the situation was an "atomic bomb in the middle of the plant."

As December 2 turned into December 3, Padmini Nadar was preparing to dance for the guests at her wedding when the overfilled MIC tank exploded. Heat from the explosion transformed the liquid chemical into a hurricane of gas. There was no warning to the half-million or more residents poisoned by it. Padmini was thrown to the ground and rendered unconscious.

Carbide initially claimed that the gas was merely an irritant, similar to tear gas, and recommended that doctors rinse their patients' eyes with cold compresses and give them plenty of water to drink. When that proved unsuccessful (one panicked doctor on the phone with a company spokesman is quoted as saying, "Water? Is that all you suggest I use to save people coughing their lungs out?" before hanging up), the company tried to claim its plant had been sabotaged by a disgruntled employee.

In Bhopal's Muslim cemeteries, the dead were buried ten to a grave. The city's grand mufti had to issue an urgent decree to allow the desecration of older graves to make room for the Carbide victims. Religious students were dispatched to ensure no Muslims were accidentally cremated as Hindus, and it was when one of the students noticed a gold cross around the neck of a young woman (given to her by a Catholic nun, though she was Hindu) -- and then, on closer inspection, that her hands and feet weren't cold and that her eyelids were quivering -- that Padmini's life was saved.

By the time Carbide chairman Warren Anderson arrived on the scene, the cries for justice had reached such a pitch that he was taken into custody at the airport by local officials. But it turned out to be a rather empty gesture. Fearful of U.S. reaction, the Indian government ordered the release of Anderson, who returned to America and, in the aftermath, resigned.

Today, an Interpol warrant for Anderson's arrest remains unserved; Anderson himself is still in hiding. In 1989, Carbide paid $470 million in compensation, on condition that it admit no wrongdoing and that no company official be implicated in the case. After five years of bureaucratic wrangling, families were paid an average of $1,400 for each victim.

Like Chernobyl, Bhopal -- the name itself -- has become a slogan for industrial catastrophe. Teenagers at anti-globalization rallies regularly admonish the world to "Remember Bhopal," though they themselves are too young to actually do so. And it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that Lapierre and Moro have written a book about the issue of globalization that has us so divided today. Though Five Past Midnight contains no rhetoric about the dangers of free markets, no demands for legislation, and no sermons on social justice, and though it recounts a disaster almost two decades old, the book is extremely effective at convincing us of the terrible consequences possible when the bottom-line calculus of business mixes with the inadequate regulations of a nation being pushed toward rapid industrialization.

In a book that is as unapologetic as a Hollywood blockbuster in its emotional appeal, Lapierre and Moro even end with a cliffhanger. Padmini and her husband have moved to the countryside, where they hope to start a new life. It is 1998, during the monsoon season, and they are visited by a Monsanto representative who has come, he says, to give them a "present": a small bag of black soya seeds that have been "specially modified" to defend themselves against insects.

Padmini and her husband accept the gift, set it on a small altar, and light incense in thanks. They are, the authors tell us, convinced that the seeds will change their lives forever.

Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
Cradle to Cradle
This Fine Piece of Water
The Future of Life
The Hydrogen Economy

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William K. Tabb is author of The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century.

OnEarth. Fall 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council