A Rare Look Inside The Abandoned Factory That Caused The Worst Industrial Disaster In History

On the evening of December 2nd, 1984, a gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, spread from the factory to surrounding residential neighborhoods, killing thousands and affecting the area for the next thirty years.

It’s known as the the worst industrial disaster in history, with an estimated death toll of 25,000. The factory’s chemicals have caused various long-lasting medical problems in citizens in Bhopal as well, with the rates of cancer in the area doubling in women and tripling in men in the years after the tragedy.

Yet the factory itself still stands, dilapidated and overgrown, a constant reminder of the past.

While the site is generally off-limits to visitors, photographer and regular Business Insider contributor Giles Clarke was recently allowed access to the site and given a tour by Sanjay Verma, a man who survived the tragedy, losing seven family members in the process.

He shared the following images with us.

Built in the 1970s, the pesticide factory in Bhopal was expected to bring Union Carbide great revenue, as the company banked on the untapped market for their products with local farmers.

However, officials at the company greatly overestimated the demand for their pesticides. Local farmers, struggling to simply get by, did not have the financial resources to purchase the relatively expensive chemicals.

After Union Carbide deemed the factory a lost cause and stopped production in the early 1980s, the factory fell into dereliction. The skilled workers who had labored there left, leaving an inexperienced and small workforce to manage what was left.

Even though production ceased, little was done to clean up the area. In fact, vast amounts of toxic chemicals remained on site. In particular, three huge tanks of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, a very volatile and dangerous gas were left on the premises.

When the factory was operational, multiple safety systems were in place to make sure that the MIC tanks, along with other dangerous chemicals, were kept secure. But, as the factory deteriorated, the safety precautions fell into disrepair.

Late in the evening of December 2nd, 1984, as employees attempted to flush a broken pipe, several safety precautions failed, allowing water to come in contact with one of the tanks of MIC, like the one seen below. This caused a large explosion and allowed a huge cloud of deadly chemicals to be released. The cloud, blown by wind, stayed low to the ground and moved into the surrounding residential areas.

Within the first 72 hours, it is reported that an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people died. Up to 25,000 are said to have died due to direct exposure to the gas leak from the Union Carbide plant that night.

However, the disaster has more far-reaching effects. More than 120,000 people suffer chronic illnesses due to exposure, such as respiratory illness, reproduction problems, immune deficiencies, chromosome abnormalities, and cancer.

With just a simple and crumbling wall around the plant, and little public safety awareness about the dangers of the area, the site is still accessible and still poses major threats.

Aside from the direct effects from the gas leak, other issues arise from the toxins still present on the now abandoned factory site. Due to lax procedures when storing and disposing of waste from the plant, such as at the use of these solar evaporation ponds below, pollutants have seeped into earth, contaminating the ground water.

The number of children born with birth defects in the area is much higher than the national average, and continues to rise in recent years. Things, it appears, are getting worse.

Earlier in December, protestors came together near the plant to mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster and to call for further reparations for victims and a full clean up of the area.

When Dow purchased Union Carbide in 2001, they refused to accept further responsibility for the disaster, citing the 1989 $470 million settlement made to the Indian government. Citizens of Bhopal argue that, while this settlement helped, it did not take into consideration the after-effects and lasting contamination in the area.

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, who accompanied Clarke on the tour of the plant, has specifically called on the US to take action. 'Had oil giant BP tried to hide out behind the skirts of UK jurisdiction after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it is inconceivable that the USA -- or the UK, for that matter -- would have tolerated it,' he's said.

For now, the plant remains standing, the full extent of its hidden effects on the area still not known.

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