The victims of the chemical disaster in India that left more than 2,000 people dead and tens of thousands injured "can be fairly and equitably compensated without a material adverse effect on the financial condition of Union Carbide Corp.," Chairman Warren M. Anderson said today.
His comments helped narrow a loss being taken by Union Carbide stock today.
Facing the press for the first time since he was arrested in India last week in connection with the deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Anderson said he felt neither personally nor criminally responsible for the accident. He added, however, that the company has "a moral responsibility in this issue and we are not ducking it."
Anderson said he expected that the Indian government's charges of "criminal negligence," which carry a maximum life sentence, will be a "moot issue." He added, "I will take my chances that the government of India will work out a solution."
If India insists that he return to stand trial, Anderson said, "I'd consider it, certainly."
It was thought to be a bold move when Anderson, at a company meeting to discuss the tragedy last Tuesday, announced he would visit the site. Union Carbide, one of the world's largest industrial companies, with sales of $9 billion last year, owns 50.9 percent of Union Carbide India, which operates the plant in Bhopal.
But when he arrived in Bhopal Friday morning, expecting to be driven to the plant, he was detained instead, along with two top officers of Union Carbide India, in the company's guest house. He was held for six hours, then released on about $2,000 bail.
"We were treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration," Anderson said. "The reason given for holding us in the guest house was concern over my security."
Anderson said that, while in India, "I didn't see a placard, I didn't see an angry citizen." Nor did he see any of the victims, because he was driven through a different part of town and ordered out of the country without being allowed to inspect the plant, he said.
Company officials have not been permitted inside the factory since the disaster and thus do not know what happened, Anderson said.
The company released documents today covering internal safety inspections of the Bhopal plant from September 1982 to June 1984. A Sept. 27, 1982, report detailed "major" safety problems, including "potential for contamination, overpressure or overfilling of the Sevin MIC feed tank" and "deficiencies in safety valve and instrument maintenance programs."
According to a progress report dated June 26, 1984, most of the problems detailed in September 1982 had been solved, except the company was awaiting delivery of a control valve for the Sevin MIC tank. A company spokesman said last night that the tank in question is in a different part of the plant from the one that leaked methyl isocyanate (MIC) in the accident.
"A government inspection team is busy at work," Anderson said today. "They are doing their utmost to figure out what went wrong with a process that was used for 20 years in the United States without incident and seven years in India without incident."
Anderson said the disaster had been "a shattering kind of experience" for him. His reaction to the initial report of 36 people dead, he said, was "one of disbelief." He said that in the chemical industry 36 fatalities is "a mind-boggling number."
Through the night, Anderson said, "as the numbers crept up and crept up and crept up, you almost felt, 'If I go to sleep and I wake up, this will have disappeared.' It was a lack of comprehension . . . . How could it happen?"
Anderson said that Union Carbide had one of the best safety records in the industry, but that "now we have a stigma and it's going to stick with this company for a long, long time . . . . I know the balance of my professional career will be associated with how to sort out this incident."
Anderson said the company will answer questions Tuesday at its plant in Institute, W.Va., about whether safety rules in overseas plants are different from rules at U.S. plants. The Institute facility is similar to the plant in India and, like it, produces MIC.
Jackson B. Browning, corporate director of health, safety and environmental affairs, said evacuation plans are left to local officials in both India and West Virginia.
In West Virginia, he said, plans for evacuating local residents are "very elaborate." In Bhopal, he said, Indian officials were aware of the nature of the plans since the company had contributed to training local doctors to deal with toxic poisoning. But "how they communicate with their local residents, I don't know," he said.
Anderson said the Bhopal plant originally had been built outside the city, but that, as is customary in India because of poor transportation, settlers later had congregated around it.
He declined to say how much liability insurance the company carries or to comment on a $15 billion class-action suit filed in the United States on behalf of the victims' relatives.
The company has donated $1 million to an emergency relief fund, supplementing $840,000 given by the Indian subsidiary. The guest house is to become an orphanage.
"There has to be some way monetary compensation can reach the victims quickly," Anderson said, adding that he hopes the decision, in which "all kinds of people will be involved," will not drag on for years.
Asked whether it was necessary to produce the gas, Browning acknowledged that the pesticides of which it is a component can be made without it, but that other methods require more equipment and produce more waste.