Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3, 1984

By guest blogger Allen Spalt

Today is the 25th anniversary of the disaster at Bhopal, India.

When the badly designed and improperly maintained chemical tank failed at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal and sent a cloud of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas over the city killing thousands in the middle of the night, it was the world's works industrial "accident." It also poisoned thousands of others with health effects that linger today (for those who have survived that long).

For me, it is a strong reminder and impetus for our work. It was also totally unnecessary in at least two ways.

First, the pesticides being manufactured there, carbaryl (Sevin) and Aldicarb, can be made with a 'flow through' process that does not require the use of intermediate holding tanks for the MIC which is used in the manufacture of the final products. In fact, at the time, Bhopal's sister plant in Institute, West Virginia, did not contain such tanks. Better oversight and maintenance might have prevented the leaks, of course, but in fact the tanks were not even necessary. Just cheaper. So to save a few bucks on the process and on maintenance, Union Carbide risked the lives of tens of thousands.

Second, we work to promote alternatives which would make the manufacture of such deadly pesticides unnecessary. You don't need Sevin or Aldicarb or other similar deadly poisons in sustainable or organic agriculture. Every acre that is converted means fewer pounds of poison manufactured, sold, used, or disposed of. Fewer people at risk. Less residues in the water, soil, and food. Safer environments for our children and wildlife.

Someday it will be recognized that what has been called "conventional agriculture" for the last few decades was anything but. It is horribly out of sync with the tradition of agriculture over the centuries. With chemical intensive monocultures, it is depleting the soil and poisoning the water. It is not sustainable. The latest gasp of bioengineered crops, which promised more productivity and fewer chemicals, are proving to provide neither. They are less productive and require more herbicides and other pesticides. You know, if there is one thing the geniuses from Monsanto could select for besides Roundup-resistance, it would be greater productivity. But they haven't found it in any genetically engineered crop. More than a few critics from our side of the barn predicted this.

It is not a question of whether will we replace "conventional" agriculture with sustainable production, it is when. Otherwise we will not be sustained as a civilization.

Most indicators, fortunately, are not as dramatic as Bhopal, but they are pointing in our direction. I am proud to work with all of you on this important work to promote health and safety and to point the way to a sustainable future. Getting rid of pesticides is one important part of the struggle.

Union Carbide did not survive the aftermath of the incident, though it never paid fully for its responsibility. Its assets were sold. Work continues under other owners in RTP. The Bhopal plant was bought by Dow, which contends it has no responsibility to the victims.

On the tenth anniversary I was giving a workshop at a meeting in Atlanta and asked for a moment of silence for Bhopal. I was moved when one participant introduced himself as having grown up in Bhopal. He is one of three or four people I've met from there, the others are survivors of the disaster. Today I will take time out to remember them and others and rededicate to the task.

Join us in commemorating the Bhopal anniversary by taking action for justice in Bhopal.

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