Union Carbide Corp. officials said yesterday they want to rebuild a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, where leaking methyl isocyanate gas killed at least 2,000 people last month.
But a company spokesman conceded that the Indian government probably will bar further production of the gas that caused the accident, meaning that some other chemical would be produced.
Union Carbide Chairman Warren M. Anderson said he hopes to meet here later this month with the attorney general of India, to discuss the multibillion-dollar litigation arising from the worst industrial accident in history.
Anderson's primary motivation, according to Union Carbide spokesman Ralph Leviton, is to provide employment for the 650 people who lost their jobs because of the Dec. 3 accident. Leviton said Anderson was "thinking out loud" when he told reporters in New York Thursday, "we're trying to see if there is some way to put in a new plant, either by modifying what we have or building a new factory."
Meanwhile, a preliminary report by the Environmental Protection Agency said Union Carbide's plant at Institute, W.Va., the only place in the United States where the chemical is made, is in compliance with federal air pollution and toxic substance regulations, although EPA inspectors found several minor violations.
In interviews Thursday with the editors and reporters of The Wall Street Journal and Reuter, Anderson said the Indian government has accepted the company's offer to provide $1 million in emergency relief to relatives of the dead and to the 125,000 people injured when the lethal cloud drifted from the plant.
India's acceptance of the month-old offer could signal a softening of its stance against the company, including its vow not to let the plant reopen.
Anderson said Union Carbide's offer of compensation "was never intended to buy our way out cheaply." But he added that "there is a tremendous sense of urgency on everybody's part to settle this in the short term," suggesting an out-of-court settlement could occur by July. He added that "between our insurance coverages and assets, we can handle the problem without undue harm" to the company.
Two more suits arising from the accident were filed yesterday -- one in federal court in Charleston, W.Va., by two Richmond lawyers who said they are seeking $20 billion in damages on behalf of 2,500 residents of Bhopal; and the other a $1.25 billion class-action suit filed in Dade County (Fla.) Circuit Court. More than $80 billion in claims have been filed in this country against Union Carbide. A federal court panel is scheduled to meet Jan. 24 in New Orleans to decide where the various lawsuits should be heard.
Anderson labeled as "speculation" a report by the Indian government's chief scientist that the gas leak was caused by water seeping into an underground tank. Results of Union Carbide's own investigation are expected in three to five weeks. Production of methyl isocyanate at the West Virginia plant was halted after the Bhopal incident, and the economic effects of that action are being felt in several locations.
Dick Henderson, the Union Carbide spokesman at Institute, said the plant's remaining supply of the chemical was used up making the pesticide Sevin on Thursday, and that the 40 people employed in the unit temporarily will be transferred to other parts of the plant.
"We're trying to be optimistic that production of the chemical will resume ," Henderson said, "so for the near term we don't anticipate any layoffs." Eventually, however, Henderson said, "if the situation isn't resolved," all 450 workers employed in the agricultural chemical complex at the plant "will run out of things to do."
The inability to buy methyl isocyanate has forced the Nor-Am Chemical Co. to lay off 10 of 50 workers in Muskegon, Mich. Robert Axtell, vice president of the firm, said the chemical is an ingredient in the pesticide Ficam, which is the plant's sole product. Methyl isocyanate is used in the final step of production, Axtell said, so for the time being the plant will continue to make intermediate steps. Axtell said he is "not sure what will happen" if it can't resume buying the chemical.
The Du Pont Co., which bought about 60,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate a week ago from the Institute plant, announced plans to manufacture the chemical at its plant in La Porte, Tex.
R.D. Stewart, manager of the Du Pont plant there, said the company plans to build a $10 million "closed loop" system that will allow the finished methyl isocyanate to be used immediately in producing the pesticide Lannate, which cannot be made without it.
"We think the procedure is an improvement over a process that has been running safely for 15 years," Stewart said. Liquid methyl isocyanate previously was shipped by railroad tank car from West Virginia to the plant on the Houston ship channel. Stewart said there never will be more than 10 to 20 pounds on site, and that in such small amounts "we could handle even a catastrophic rupture of the piping system."
The Du Pont plan is dependent upon approval by the Texas Air Control Board.
Sam Crowther, chief of the the board's chemical permits section, said the Du Pont plan "sounds like a fairy tale, it's beautiful." He said approval of the company's request to amend its permit to use the chemical should be completed in a couple of weeks.
Asked if objections from residents who live near the plant could slow the procedure, Crowther said, "why would anyone object?" He said the in-plant production of methyl isocyanate should result in a "tremendous reduction, almost elimination," of the risk of importing the chemical in railroad cars. "I don't want that stuff rumbling around anywhere," he said.
The final order of methyl isocyanate rejected by a foreign country was en route to the Carbide plant in Woodbine, Ga., last night. The 13.6-ton shipment was unloaded at Norfolk on Thursday, after it was turned back from Fos, France. Like a previous shipment returned from Brazil, the shipment made the 625-mile trip by truck, accompanied by state police along the route.