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Report: Bhopal spill could have been prevented

By
LINDA WERFELMAN

WASHINGTON -- The deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India, could have been prevented if Union Carbide Corp. had met its own plant safety recommendations and Indian officials had examined worker complaints, two international labor groups said today.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers' Unions blamed the Dec. 3, 1984, accident that killed at least 1,700 people in part on 'dangerous and irresponsible' operating procedures.

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The groups said in a report that as early as 1976, workers had demanded better safety provisions and in 1972 posted warning signs in the neighborhood around the Union Carbide chemical plant.

'Had the company and the authorities listened to this ... the worst industrial accident in history could have been prevented,' the report said. 'But little or nothing was done to correct the problems which eventually led to the disaster.'

The report noted that a 1982 inspection by American employees of Union Carbide had found 10 problems that represented 'either a higher potential for a serious incident or more serious consequences if an incident should occur.'

But a copy of the firm's report to its Indian subsidiary concluded that 'no situation involving imminent danger or requiring immediate correction was noted,' the labor report said.

The document also noted that at least five earlier accidents involving toxic materials had been recorded at the Bhopal plant since 1981. The plant produced the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate, which is used in pesticides. The chemical leaked into the air surrounding the plant and thousands suffered severe respiratory and eye problems.

The 20-page report, released simultaneously today by the international unions in Geneva, Switzerland, and New Delhi, India, and by the AFL-CIO in Washington, also blamed the accident on inadequate maintenance, faulty equipment, insufficient attention to safety in the process design, poor training and lack of emergency response planning.

In its analysis of circumstances surrounding the leak of toxic methyl isocyanate, the labor unions' 12-member team of investigators concluded that the underlying causes of the accident were not unique.

The factory conditions that led to the leak, had they occurred in the United States or several other developed nations, 'would not have violated any specific workplace or environmental standard,' the report said.

'Highly dangerous chemicals are produced, used, stored, transported -- and spilled -- throughout the world,' it added. 'Bhopal was not the first chemical disaster. In the absence of strong national and international regulations, rigorously enforced, the next such tragedy is only a matter of time.'

The inspectors ruled out sabotage as a possible cause of the runaway chemical reaction that began when water entered the MIC storage tanks. Instead, they said the water flowed into the tanks during a routine cleaning 'because of mistakes by management, faulty equipment design and maintenance and cuts in staffing.'

The Indian government has estimated at least 1,700 people were killed in the accident but other estimates have ranged to more than 2,500. The labor report, noting that thousands of people are still listed as missing, estimated fatalities actually were higher than any published figures.

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