03 December 2014

Corporate Shuffleboard


T
hirty years ago, on the night of 2/3 December, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters occurred. Thomas Benge summarizes thus in an article in History Today written for this anniversary: “In the central Indian city of Bhopal on the night of December 2nd, 1984, a chemical reaction at a pesticide factory released 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, better known as MIC. In one night between 3,000 and 10,000 lives were lost.”
The plant, owned by Union Carbide, was poorly maintained and subject to cost-cutting measures in pursuit of that god of Capitalism, Holy Profit. The result—in effect a catastrophic chemical leak—seems unsurprising. Union Carbide (through a report by paid minions) claims that poor maintenance and cost-cutting played no rôle in the horror that followed; its own “investigation” concluded that employee sabatoge carried out for some unfathomable reason was to blame. That conclusion would be surprising—if there was any reason to believe it. Unfortunately Union Carbide chose to interfere with the official investigation from the beginning, hopelessly muddying the waters.
In any case it seems like an odd point to insist upon. Plant security is the company’s business. Union Carbide’s insistence on moving its area of incompetence from maintenance to security doesn’t seem to absolve it from blame. If anything, it just makes it worse. To quote Thomas Benge’s conclusion, “Industry experts point out that if the system was so vulnerable that someone could simply unscrew one pipe and replace it with another, there were serious safety issues. Mechanical error or sabotage, Union Carbide built a chemical bomb with a hair trigger in the middle of a city. It was just a matter of time until it went off.”

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