A few hours past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, an accident occurred at a Union Carbide Corp. (UCC) pesticide plant in Bhopal in central India that left much of the city covered in a blanket of sickness and death.
Water leaked into a tank containing highly volatile chemicals, setting off a massive exothermic reaction that could not be contained. Dozens of metric tons of lethal gas were expelled into the night.
This chemical cloud, which contained a form of cyanide, was soon blown southeast over residential areas. By morning, the dead and barely living filled the city’s streets, hospitals and makeshift morgues. Thousands were killed, and nobody knew why.
Yet worse was to follow. In the three decades since the incident, up to 25,000 people have died, and over 500,000 have suffered a variety of ailments — cancer, tuberculosis and birth defects, among others — that stem directly from the effects of the leak.
This painful aftermath has been met by indifference by the plant’s former proprietors, the UCC, and its present parent company, the Dow Chemical Company. Both these U.S.-based multinationals continue to resist outstanding litigation claims, insisting that the cause of the leak was employee sabotage.
Today Dow is engaged in a legal standoff with the government of India over paying restitution for environmental damages in Bhopal and is refusing to even clean up the site of the plant, which is still leaking highly toxic substances into the local water system. Just last year, Dow brought in over $50 billion in revenue, and yet it continues to deny liability when victims in Bhopal ask for basic assistance.
But it isn’t too late to start to make amends for history’s worst industrial accident, not least because new victims emerge every day.
Even 30 years on, children are born with horrific deformities caused by the effects of the chemicals lingering around the rusting plant. Others fall sick because they have no choicebut to drink poisonous water from wells contaminated by the disaster.
Despite being linked to such immense suffering, Dow is still determined to resist all claims against it.
Sadly, such behavior conforms to a pattern of evasion on the part of those most responsible for the disaster, one that began the day of the leak.
At the time, officials from the UCC’s subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited lied to doctors about the impact of the gas, telling them it was not lethal and that “there is nothing to do except to ask the patients to put a wet towel over their eyes.” These and other misleading statements meant that many physicians did not inject patients with sodium thiosulphate, an antidote to cyanide poisoning, which could have saved countless lives.
When they were no longer able to downplay the disaster’s scale, UCC representatives tried to avoid responsibility by falling back on their sabotage theory.
This version of events, according to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, is simply not credible. “The sabotage theory has been challenged by many, including workers from the factory and testimony by UCC managers themselves. UCC has refused to name the employee and has not produced any specific evidence in court regarding sabotage,” he recently said.
After five years of legal struggle, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the government of India and the UCC, for about 15 percent of the sum called for by Delhi. This followed negotiations in which the UCC’s lawyers used all manner of dirty tricks to reduce the level of settlement, including denying that the gas released was dangerous and attempting to have the claims of allegedly illiterate victims negated.
When the figure of nearly half a billion dollars was agreed on, a young Malcolm Gladwell observed in The Washington Post that of this amount, approximately $400 million was raised directly from insurance and corporate reserve funds, leaving a relatively paltry $70 million taken out of the company’s $8 billion in revenue the previous year.
The figure paid by the UCC was not only woefully inadequate but also poorly distributed. Survivors, many of them permanently sick and unable to earn a living, were lucky if they managed to claim a few hundred dollars in restitution.
Not long after the payout, a ruling from the Supreme Court of India determined that criminal proceedings could continue against UCC employees, including its CEO, Warren Anderson. In following years, several summonses were issued to the corporation to face further charges, all of which were ignored.
Dow even paid a private intelligence firm, Stratfor, to spy on activists in the United States who were seeking to highlight the suffering of Bhopalis.
With regard to the poisons still leaking from the site, the UCC claimed in 1998 that it “found no evidence of groundwater contamination,” presumably because it had not made the effort to investigate properly; subsequent tests have strongly demonstrated that contaminants are present. Given the UCC’s actions, it is difficult to take the company’s claims in good faith.
After its acquisition of the UCC in 2001, Dow went even further to avoid responsibility. While refusing to face criminal charges in the subcontinent, it nonetheless used its enormous resources to try to sue Indian activists, including some Bhopal survivors, for up to $10,000 in damages after protests in 2002.
Dow even paid a private intelligence firm, Stratfor, to spy on activists in the United States who were seeking to highlight the suffering of Bhopalis. Some of the tactics apparently deployed by Stratfor included attempts to gather information on the personal lives of their targets.
What best illustrates the contradictions of Dow’s stance is that it shelled out about $2 billion for liabilities for UCC employees exposed to asbestos in the U.S. despite the fact that, as in the Bhopal case, it did not own the UCC when the exposure occurred. Adjusted for inflation, the figure paid out for the asbestos claims, for far lesser damage to human life, is more than twice what the UCC was forced to concede in 1989.
The message is clear: Indian lives are worth less than Western lives. Needless to say, such actions are hardly compatible with Dow’s self-proclaimed commitment to ethics and the “inherent worth of all people,” as advertised on its slickly designed website.
Time for justice
Despite the appalling past record of Dow and the UCC, the good news is that they still have the power to take action to end the suffering of Bhopalis.
Given public opinion and the unrest of shareholders, the business case for Dow’s taking responsibility has never been stronger. Public opinion in the U.S. and India strongly is strongly in favor of Dow’s facing an Indian court for its role in the disaster, and Dow shareholders have argued for a new settlement on the basis of the damage to the company’s reputation, among other concerns. Recently it was announced that the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, resolved to withdraw all its Dow stock and bond holdings because of its failure to take responsibility for the disaster.
Judging by its actions, there are no guarantees that Dow will do the right thing, but the outside pressure at least increases the chance that Bhopalis will finally, after three decades, get the justice they deserve.