The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal seemed doomed almost from the start. The company built the pesticide factory there in the 1970s, thinking that India represented a huge untapped market for its pest control products. However sales never met the company’s expectations; Indian farmers, struggling to cope with droughts and floods, didn’t have the money to buy Union Carbide’s pesticides. The plant, which never reached its full capacity, proved to be a losing venture and ceased active production in the early 1980s.
However vast quantities of dangerous chemicals remained; three tanks continued to hold over 60 tons of Methyl Isocyanate, or MIC for short. Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant’s elaborate safety system was allowed to fall into disrepair. The management’s reasoning seemed to be that since the plant had ceased all production, no threat remained. Every safety system that had been installed to prevent a leak of MIC—at least six in all—ultimately proved inoperative, and lead to a leak on the night of Dec. 2nd and 3rd, 1984.
This poisoning has been going on for decades. The first signs appeared in the early 80s, before the gas leak, when animals grazing near the factory became ill and died. The complaints of their owners were settled out-of-court. The company continually denied that the factory was contaminated or was responsible for polluting water, but it is clear from internal Carbide documents obtained via "discovery" in the New York court case that it had carried out tests and knew as long ago as early 80s that soil and water within its boundaries were lethal. It chose not to make this knowledge public, instead continuing to deny that any danger existed.
On December 25, 1981, a leak of phosgene killed one worker, Ashraf Khan, at the plant and severely injured two others. On January 9, 1982, twenty-five workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. During the "safety week" proposed by management to address worker grievances about the Bhopal facility, repeated incidents of such toxic leakage took place and workers took the opportunity to complain directly to the American management officials present. In the wake of these incidents, workers at the plant demanded hazardous duty pay scales commensurate with the fact that they were required to handle hazardous substances. These requests were denied. Yet another leak on October 5, 1982 affected hundreds of nearby residents requiring hospitalization of large numbers of people residing in the communities surrounding the plant. After the release – which included quantities of MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform – the worker’s union printed hundreds of posters, which they distributed throughout the community, warning:
• "Beware of Fatal Accidents"
• "Lives of thousands of workers and citizens in danger because of poisonous gas"
• "Spurt of accidents in the factory, safety measures deficient."