…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Bhopal Disaster’s 25th Anniversary: Another Act of Corporate Terrorism That Time Forgot
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White

An attack on a community perpetrated by an amorphous group that could be in any country, with no allegiance to any particular government, constitutes a fright far removed from any conventional war. That’s why we have a special word for it: terrorism.

But terrorism doesn’t always come in the form of a suicide bomber. And it’s not always religious extremism that drives people to commit terrorist acts. Sometimes terrorism comes in the form of a silent and nearly invisible mass, driven by cold, hard cash.

Such was the case on Dec. 3, 1984 in the Indian district of Bhopal.

Dawn hadn’t broken yet. In a Union Carbide plant, large amounts of water had leaked into a tank, reacting with 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, a volatile chemical also known as MIC. Pressure forced massive amounts of toxic gas out of the factory, causing some 4,000 local residents to die as the sun rose to a new day in Bhopal.

Those who didn’t die felt as if their eyes and throats were on fire. Some of them would later die of cancers, neurological damage and other ailments. Mothers would unwittingly continue a cycle of contamination as ground water poisoned the breast milk they fed to their children, many of whom would grow up with serious deformities.

According to the Indian Council for Medical Research, 25,000 people have died from exposure since the initial explosion. But this is not some quarter-century-old tragedy to shake one’s head over and move on. It’s estimated that 10 to 30 people continue to die from exposure every month. Hundreds of thousands continue to suffer from the effects, and indications are the problem may only be getting worse.

Not only was the disaster site was never cleaned up, but the pollution that was simply standard operating procedure for Union Carbide — such as their “solar evaporation ponds” filled with dangerous waste –  plague residents in and around Bhopal to this day.

Instead of cleaning up the factory, which is still brimming with dangerous chemicals, Union Carbide paid a $470 million settlement to the Indian government in 1989 and got the hell out of dodge. The settlement only provided a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars to victims who permanently lost their relatives, health and livelihood. Some got nothing at all.

Union Carbide became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical (you may remember them as the wonderful folks that made napalm for us to use in the Vietnam War) in 2001. Dow released a statement coinciding with the 25-year anniversary of Bhopal insisting that the 1989 settlement releases them of all responsibility.

Dow may not have committed the atrocities in Bhopal, but they are harboring a fugitive of justice on American soil, according to the Indian government. Cases holding Dow responsible are also pending in the U.S. Furthermore, “polluter pays” laws in both the U.S. and India mandate that Dow is responsible for the disaster and continuing pollution.

As Suketu Mehta puts it in an op-ed for the New York Times today:

Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide chief executive at the time of the gas leak, lives in luxurious exile in the Hamptons, even though there’s an international arrest warrant out for him for culpable homicide. The Indian government has yet to pursue an extradition request. Imagine if an Indian chief executive had jumped bail for causing an industrial disaster that killed tens of thousands of Americans. What are the chances he’d be sunning himself in Goa?

In June, 27 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to Dow CEO Andrew Liveris calling for the company to pay for the mess, assist clean-up efforts and send legal representatives to ongoing court cases surrounding the Bhopal disaster.

“Dow Chemical has yet to be brought to justice and the victims are yet to see justice done,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who organized the effort. “Bhopal is widely regarded as the worst industrial disaster in history, so it carries a legacy with implications for the safety of chemical plants, the impact of globalization and the basic human rights of workers throughout the world.”

Considering the fact that Union Carbide publicly stated it would ignore a legal summons to appear before an Indian court, it’s unlikely the letter will change Liveris’ mind.

Now, Dow has dealt with some of the bad deeds of Union Carbide since acquiring the company, which the congressional letter said had been publicly exhibiting reckless and irresponsible behavior since 1967. Dow set aside billions of dollars to deal with Union Carbide’s legacy of asbestos poisoning in the U.S. But Liveris has made clear he’s not getting anywhere near Bhopal. And he’s probably going to get away with it.

This is where corporate attacks differ from those perpetrated by terrorist groups.

Imagine if Osama bin Laden made $2.89 billion in annual profits in 2007. Imagine if he reaped the riches that come from hundreds of products you we on a daily basis. Would we still slather our skin with Coppertone, whiten our teeth with Crest or wash our hair with Head and Shoulders if it benefited a company that manufactured a secret kidney dialysis center for bin Laden to hide out in?

The difference here is that multinational companies don’t need to hole up in mountainous ranges in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They can just pay a nominal fee that doesn’t even come close to covering the costs of the mess they left behind, change their names and issue noncommittal press releases on the anniversary of their attacks, disavowing responsibility.

Multinationals are, by definition, larger and considered by many to be more important than any one country. They’re more powerful than any one court of law. In fact, among the weapons in their arsenal is the red tape produced by courts and bureaucracies. They also use the threat of pulling economic investments as a way to blackmail governments into doing exactly what they want them to, as Dow did in India in 2006. Chameleon-like, they live longer than any person on earth. You can’t throw Dow — or Exxon or Chevron or Blackwater, for that matter — in jail.

The only triumph for the victims of this particular brand of terrorism are symbolic victories. Which is why, 25 years after the Bhopal disaster, it’s more important than ever to “never forget” victims of terrorism, no matter who pulls the proverbial trigger.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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