Earth: Site of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster, Bhopal, India.

bhopal wreckage by spencer wynn

This lonely decaying wreckage of an industrial plant may look like it’s left over from some long-ago war. In fact it’s one of the saddest and most toxic acres on planet Earth: the remains of a plant used to make a chemical named Sevin (also known as carbaryl), an insecticide, which was run by a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation. Thirty-one years ago today, on December 3, 1984, something terrible happened at this plant which resulted in a colossal leak of toxic gas that spewed out of the plant and drifted over the nearby densely-populated city of Bhopal, India. Over half a million people were sickened by inhaling the gas, known as methyl isocyanate, which caused acute respiratory and circulatory collapse. Many thousands died, though exactly how many is disputed. Probably at least 8,000 people were killed in the disaster, but numbers as high as 16,000 have been claimed.  Those who didn’t die right away continued to suffer effects for years afterwards: crippling injuries, scarring on eyes and lungs, birth defects, stillbirths, and PTSD. The Bhopal disaster is the single worst industrial accident in history, and it happened right here.

There is virtually nothing about the Bhopal disaster that isn’t depressing, outrageous or controversial. After 31 years it’s still not entirely certain what caused it. The Indian government insists the plant operator, Union Carbide of India Limited, and its parent company, Union Carbide Corporation, were grossly negligent in supervising the plant, which had begun operating in 1969. Union Carbide insists that the disaster was caused by deliberate sabotage of a water main leading into a chemical tank (the explosion that released the gas was caused by a chemical reaction with water). Court cases stemming from the disaster dragged out, both in India and the United States, well into the 2010s. Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson was charged with manslaughter and arrested when he arrived in India a few days after the disaster, but he conveniently escaped–possibly with the assistance of high-level Indian government officials–and remained wanted in India until the day of his death in 2014. Union Carbide, which sold the India subsidiary years ago, maintains a website on the disaster in which they shout from the rooftops that it was sabotage, but the website also quietly acknowledges the company’s “moral responsibility” for the horror.

If you look at the disaster site on Google Earth (the coordinates are 23° 16′ 51″ N, 77° 24′ 38″ E), you’ll see a large empty patch of ground in the middle of Bhopal and the rusty hulks of these decaying buildings. The shot above is from a 360Cities.net panorama which is available on Google Earth, and the photographer who took it, Spencer Wynn, also has a few other panoramas showing various aspects of the site. All of them, like this, evoke the sadness, tragedy and waste of the disaster. To me these images provoke thoughts about how “advanced” our industrial society really is, and whether the benefits of the products we use and the economy we enjoy are really worth the horrific human cost that usually remains hidden–until something like this happens.

The photo panorama, which I screen-capped from Google Earth, is by Spencer Wynn. You can see this and other images of the site here.
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