A tragic anniversary

On this day 25 years ago, the world witnessed its largest industrial accident yet. Sometime around midnight on December 3, 2004, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India released a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas. About a half million people were exposed, and an estimated 4,000 men, women and children died that night. (The total estimated death toll has since grown to 15,000.)

I heard a news report last night about the lingering effects of this tragedy, and how it continues to affect the people of Bhopal—and the environment. Many who survived are still suffering from blindness, crippling neurological disorders and digestive problems. To this day, several toxic ponds remain at the now-abandoned plant. A number of independent studies have confirmed that the area’s groundwater is contaminated.

Sadly, there are no cleanup plans. Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, says it’s not responsible for the site. (Union Carbide settled a legal case with India in 1989.) The Indian government says it lacks the funds and know-how to clean up the site.

I couldn’t help but think of the irony as I saw the front cover of the Star Tribune this morning. In 100-point, all-cap type, the main headline declared GUILTY. Tom Petters, the once-revered Minnesota businessman, was found guilty yesterday on 20 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Yes, the people he swindled lost millions of dollars. But no one died.

Meanwhile, half a world away, the casualties continue to mount. Yet there is no headline, no one to blame, and no recourse for the survivors.

How sad—and how monumentally unfair—that the people of Bhopal will never have the satisfaction of thinking, “at least justice was served.”

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