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Bhopal marks chemical tragedy

20 years since gas leak killed thousands in Indian city

From Satinder Bindra
CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief

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Bhopal gas leak victims protest against Union Carbide 20 years on.
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A poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, still has not been cleaned up.
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BHOPAL, India (CNN) -- People in the Indian city of Bhopal are mourning the victims of a deadly chemical leak in 1984 that killed tens of thousands.

More than 3,500 died soon after the U.S.-owned Union Carbide plant spewed tons of highly toxic methyl isocyanate into the heart of Bhopal on December 3.

Authorities say at least 15,000 people have died in what has been described as the world's worst industrial accident, although activists put the number at some 33,000.

Thousands more have suffered illnesses from the fumes that escaped from the fertilizer plant, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co.

Many of the survivors struggle with ailments ranging from breathlessness, cancer, near blindness and fatigue to heart problems and tuberculosis.

Activists say victims have not been adequately compensated, and that the plant site has not been made safe, with environmental groups estimating it will cost $30 million to do so.

Tons of poisonous chemicals are still exposed to the environment and soil samples show other toxic materials have leached underground, contaminating the water supply.

The government now trucks in fresh water every day.

The survivors -- mostly poor working class people -- are still crying for justice. They say they've only received about 100,000 rupees ($2,223) so far for the dead and even less for survivors.

But Union Carbide says it has no liability to clean up after it paid victims a $470 million out-of-court settlement in 1989.

The company also says what happened here was no accident, but a deliberate act of sabotage.

"A disgruntled employee who introduced an unusually large amount of water into a tank of methylisocynate was responsible for causing the runaway reaction," says Tom Sprick, director of Union Carbide.

But the Indian government has said this claim is irrelevant.

The local government now says it will remove all hazardous waste within a year, but environmentalists complain it's already too late.

"The fact that something that poisoned and killed so many people continues to poison lives and nobody seems to care is the biggest tragedy," says Binita Gopal from Greenpeace.

Union Carbide's management still hasn't been brought to trial, because the United States turned down extradition attempts.


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