Last year, IChemE’s President Stephen Richardson took the unusual step of writing to India’s Prime Minister about the aftermath of the accident in Bhopal. Ken Patterson and Fiona Macleod discuss the background to the letter and ask for members’ help in bringing this tragedy to a final end
IN 2014, on the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial accident, the Loss Prevention Bulletin (LPB) published a special edition with all its articles focussed on the Bhopal tragedy.
One article was from the New Delhi-based research and advocacy body, the Centre for Science and Environment. It summarised work by state and non-state bodies concerning the soil and water on and around the Bhopal site. The message was distressingly clear: the site was still significantly contaminated; the contamination was leaking into the groundwater; the contamination of the site and groundwater continued to seriously affect the health of those around the site.
Having visited Bhopal, Fiona also contributed an article. Alongside a technical discussion of the accident was her personal response as a chemical engineer to seeing the abandoned plant and meeting the community still affected by the aftermath of the accident. Photos of the plant rusting in the sun and being reclaimed by nature are almost beautiful. But they conceal the truth of the pollution still seeping out to pollute the environment and harm local people.
The sites of every other major industrial accident have or are being remediated. Flixborough is now an industrial park; Toulouse is a public green space; the Chernobyl reactors are encased, and the surrounding area is a wildlife-rich exclusion zone. In 2021 it cannot be right for the grandchildren of those children harmed by the Bhopal accident, to continue being harmed by its aftermath.
We know what to do. Waste as harmful as that at Bhopal is dealt with daily around the world, and India has the knowledge and skills to treat it. The problem is not technical; it is political and institutional: how do we gain the support of all stakeholders and organise the work, ensuring it is done correctly?
In 2019, we wrote to The Chemical Engineer, raising the issue again. Fellow chemical engineers in India, led by DP Misra (former President of the Indian IChE) suggested a letter to the Indian Government. LPB’s Editorial Board and the newly-formed IChemE Major Hazards Committee both supported the idea, which led to the letter being sent to the President of IChemE. Given the strength of support, Stephen Richardson willingly agreed to sign the letter (pictured) in his position as President.
The letter was sent to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi last September. In February IChemE received an email to say that that matter had been “disposed”. The response, originated by the Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances Department, stated that it was not its responsibility to deal with such matters and that it considers the case to be closed.
The Institution’s professional code of conduct says that members “must hold paramount the health and safety of others, draw attention to hazards and prevent avoidable danger to health or safety”. So, in writing to India’s Prime Minister, we have written to the appropriate authority that is ultimately responsible for tackling the hazard. But Bhopal clearly presents an ongoing avoidable danger to health and necessary action seems absent. As independent professionals, none of us can say that we are content with the status quo. Yet, sadly we do not yet seem able to shift the impasse and move towards solving the problem.
Can you, the Members and Fellows of IChemE, suggest ways or offer help to move forward? If you can, please contact us, via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Surely it is time to stop damaging children with the debris of a factory abandoned after an accident almost four decades ago?
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