The global struggle to force Union Carbide and its current owner,
Dow Chemical, to take responsibility for a deadly gas leak that occurred in India
21 years ago has gradually gained steam and is now a centerpiece in the growing
movement to hold corporations accountable for the negative aspects of their business
December 2 marked the 21st anniversary of the methyl isocyanate gas
leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal that killed
some 15,000 people and left another 800,000 suffering from the after-effects
of inhaling toxic fumes, according to figures from the Indian government.
The Bhopal issue, which has bubbled up to embroil not just victims of the industrial
disaster, but coalitions of company shareholders, global activist networks,
the U.S. Supreme Court, and even the White House, has largely centered on Dow's
liability for compensating victims and for cleaning up the still-toxic site.
Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) paid a $470-million settlement to victims in
1989, five years after the 40-ton gas leak, but victims' advocates say this
was far too little. Dow Chemical, which took over UCC in 2001, says it is not
responsible for further compensating victims or for cleaning up any toxins still
draining into the soil.
Many children of Bhopal residents were underdeveloped, with smaller heads,
shorter limbs, and thinner bodies than normal, says Satinath Sarangi, an activist
who runs a clinic to treat the gas victims. Even newcomers who were not exposed
to the original gas leak have reported suffering from back pains and sterility,
according to Amnesty International.
"The toxic effect has been such that mercury and lead contamination have
found their way into the breast milk of those living in the gas-hit localities
near the Carbide plant," said Sarangi.
Students in Michigan, where Dow is headquartered, and hundreds of citizens
and victims in New Delhi, India, gathered on the anniversary of the disaster
to demand that former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson and Dow face trial.
The Indian government has charged Anderson and Union Carbide with manslaughter
for killing 15,000 people, and claimed damages for injuries to 100,000 more.
The U.S. State Department denied India's request to extradite Anderson after
the U.S. Department of Commerce pleaded on the former CEO's behalf, according
to documents released in 2004 as the result of a freedom of information act
The demonstrators in New Delhi, who were organized by the international environmental
group Greenpeace, also demanded that Dow pay additional money for victims' ongoing
medical treatment, compensation, economic rehabilitation, and clean up of the
Around 20,000 people living near the broken-down Union Carbide plant are drinking
contaminated water, according to Amnesty and local activists.
UCC has blamed the tragedy on Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL), claiming it
had no control over its Indian subsidiary. Amnesty International, however, says
that UCC owned 50.9% of UCIL and maintained enough control to prevent the disaster.
In November, these continuing disagreements led a coalition of shareholders
owning more than 4.5 million Dow Chemical shares worth some $200 million to
file a resolution asking Dow to disclose the financial impact of the Bhopal
survivors' outstanding social and environmental concerns. The company refused.
Dow wrote that, "we continue to believe the Company's disclosures of these
matters are appropriate and in full compliance with the Generally Accepted Accounting
Principles and other requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission."
The shareholders, which include the New York State Common Retirement Fund,
the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, Sisters of Mercy Regional Community
of Detroit Charitable Trust, and Boston Common Asset Management, say that failure
to disclose the requested information poses a threat to the company's reputation
and market growth in Asia.
"Dow Chemical, with its 2001 acquisition of Union Carbide, has inherited
a serious environmental issue. Management really needs to prepare for the potential
liability it faces, particularly lost business opportunities around the world,
if these issues regarding the Bhopal incident are not resolved," said New
York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi.
In a related case the Supreme Court ruled in April that citizens damaged by
pesticides have the right to sue companies the manufacture these toxic products.
Dow--a key stakeholder in the case--had argued along with the Bush administration
that the Environmental Protection Agency's registration on products should shield
chemical manufacturers from litigation.
A Texas fisherwoman has taken the company head-on over another high profile
Diane Wilson, a mother of five and fisherwoman off the coast of Seadrift, Texas,
launched a one-women war against Dow when she found out the company was dumping
lethal pollutants into Seadrift's bay, killing shrimp and allegedly causing
cancer in local residents, including some of her friends.
Wilson forged an alliance with the survivors in Bhopal and was arrested and
convicted of a minor misdemeanor after hanging a banner declaring "Dow
Responsible for Bhopal" and chaining herself to a tower in her local Dow
Wilson was also fined $2,000 and sentenced to four months in prison.
Refusing to serve her sentence until former UCC CEO Warren Anderson faced the
charges against him in India, Wilson left Texas in search of Anderson. She found
him at his home in the town of South Hampton on Long Island in New York and
stood outside with a sign that said "Warren, shouldn't you be in India?"
"This company has warrants out for their arrest, and they can be defiant
and not show up, but let a little woman with a banner drop it...and I'm a dangerous
woman--and I have to be thrown in jail," Wilson said.
Bhopal has come to be a prime example cited by advocates for more responsible
business practices, and some corporate watch groups say the case is the result
of some of the more negative aspects of globalization.
"The problem with globalization is that industry can take advantage of
lax environmental standards and get away with it--like Texaco in Ecuador or
Shell in Nigeria," Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of the non-profit
group CorpWatch in Oakland, California, told OneWorld.
"There isn't a legal regime to enforce regulation and make people accountable,
so the United States will not force American executives to comply with Indian
laws in the case of Bhopal," said Chatterjee, whose brother gave medical
aid to victims in Bhopal days after the gas leak.
Amnesty International agrees that more laws are needed to enforce corporate
responsibility, but says that the United Nations has taken positive steps.
"There is a real need for global human rights standards for corporations,"
said Benedict Southworth, campaigns director at Amnesty International, in a
statement on the organization's Web site.
"The U.N. Norms for Business are an important step in this direction,
but to hold companies accountable and prevent disasters like Bhopal happening
again, it is imperative to have enforceable standards that guarantee redress
for victims," Southworth said.
Many of those advocating stiffer legal controls on big business see the Bhopal
disaster as just one of many examples of corporate negligence.
"Bhopal was a more dramatic example but this sort of thing happens every
day all round the world--a lot of them are unseen disasters, even right here
in the Bay Area people are poisoned by industries. It's a slow death--heart
problems, respiratory problems, and cancer. You don't see people die overnight
but the toxic effects of major industry are felt worldwide," Chatterjee
A study released last week in Fortune Magazine found that U.S. companies scored
far lower than their European and Asian counterparts on a new corporate accountability
rating of Fortune Global 100 companies.
Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have also found that over 75%
of people tested carry breakdown products of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic pesticide.
Dow produces about 80 percent of all chlorpyrifos worldwide, according to the
Pesticide Action Network of North America.