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Bhopal gas tragedy lives on, 20 years later

Evidence of contaminated water in Indian city mounts.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2004



BHOPAL, INDIA

Nearly 20 years after an accident at a Union Carbide chemical plant killed thousands here, there are signs that a second tragedy is in the making. New environmental studies indicate that tons of toxic material dumped at the old plant have now seeped into the groundwater, affecting a new generation of Bhopal citizens.

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The Indian government - long criticized for its lax regulation of Union Carbide and reluctance to pursue legal claims - now says it's ready to hold parent company Dow Chemical liable for the ground contamination.

For many, the Bhopal litigation serves as a test case for India's relationship with foreign businesses and investors. But for the victims of Bhopal, the gas tragedy is a matter of justice, compensation, and safety - all of which, they say, has been a long time in coming.

While Union Carbide settled a civil suit in 1989 by agreeing to pay victims a lump sum of $470 million, a criminal trial against the company and its top officials is entering its 15th year, with less than half of the few hundred witnesses having testified. And the compensation process has taken so long that the settlement fund has nearly doubled in value; Officials haven't decided how to dole out nearly $333 million in unplanned interest.

In the meantime, government inaction on water contamination may be affecting untold thousands who were seemingly left untouched by the poisonous gas accident of Dec. 3, 1984.

"Our state pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of the groundwater, and we will give this to the Supreme Court to settle," says Babu Lal Gaur, state minister for rehabilitation of the Bhopal gas victims, in an interview with the Monitor.

He notes that these studies were kept under wraps by the previous Congress Party government, but that the new state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, will pursue the case with vigor. "The Dow company, they are responsible for this, and the state government wants Dow to clean up, after the decision of our Supreme Court."

A Union Carbide spokesman says that the company and its sole shareholder, the Dow Chemical Company, cannot be held liable for any waste cleanup at the plant or any contamination of the ground water. "There is no legal foundation for application of liability," says John Musser, the Union Carbide spokesman, speaking from Midland, Mich., headquarters.

Union Carbide took "moral responsibility" for the tragedy, says Mr. Musser, but never had legal responsibility for the Bhopal plant, since that plant was operated by a separate Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).

At the time of the accident, Union Carbide owned 50.9 percent of UCIL's shares, but severed its relationship with UCIL in 1994. UCIL did some cleanup at the site, Musser says, "but did not complete the work," and the plant site was later bought by another Indian company, Everready Industries India Limited. Today, the plant site has been transferred to the legal responsibility of the state government itself, he says. "The chain of responsibility is very clear and Union Carbide has not been a party in that."

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