A Horrific Spill: Chemical Company Kills Thousands then Refuses Responsibility

This would be the headline from 25 years ago at Bhopal, India, when the Union Carbide plant there leaked a toxic cloud of methyl-isocyanate. My headline is indicative of the complexity of this disaster: the causes, responses, and historical path since then of regulation, cross-national legislation, and corporate attempts (or lack thereof) at responsibility to the communities where they operate are not straightforward. The company in question, Union Carbide, attempted at the time to claim it wasn't their fault (that it was sabotage). Never mind that a mere six months later, a similar accident in West Virginia, where UC ran a sister plant, nearly led to the same outcome. They then claimed that they'd responded within the letter of the law, after lawsuits in the decade following the spill. They were then bought by Dow Chemical, who, absurdly enough, claimed they took on all the assets of UC upon that sale but none of the liabilities. Seeking to alleviate themselves more, those responsible note that the Indian Government is to blame. This is partly true, though using that as a way to say the company itself is not responsible--since the government has not done its citizens justice--hardly makes them innocent. Just because more than one entity is at fault doesn't mean the first entity is not at fault.

Now, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event last week, thousands are still ill, water is still contaminated, and the chemical company in charge is moving on without taking responsibility. Had this thing happened in the U.S., or the UK, or other western nations that are home to these companies, what would we be saying?

All of this is complicated; little of it is easily resolved. What is not in doubt, though, what is in fact straightforward and without dispute, is the morally corrosive response by Dow and the former UC.

Last year, the Yes Men made their pitch to call attention to this by hosting a fake news conference wherein they posed as Dow Chemical execs and said they would actually compensate the victims.

This year, just last week, Suketa Mehta wrote a sharp commentary in the New York Times, "A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal," calling out Dow for their morally specious claims. A quote:

In 2001, the maker of napalm married the bane of Bhopal: Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide for $11.6 billion and promptly distanced itself from the disaster. If Union Carbide was at fault, that was too bad; it had just ceased to exist. In 2002, Dow set aside $2.2 billion to cover potential liabilities arising from Union Carbide's American asbestos production. By comparison, the total settlement for Bhopal was $470 million. The families of the dead got an average of $2,200; the wounded got $550; a Dow spokeswoman explained, that amount "is plenty good for an Indian." As Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey observed in 2006, "In Bhopal, some of the world's poorest people are being mistreated by one of the world's richest corporations."

Amnesty International has also provided useful commentary on the situation. Noting that is is shameless and disgraceful, they write "25 years and still no justice for the people of Bhopal" and a plea for "Justice for the Bhopal victims." The "25 years" link includes its own set of links to numerous studies about the water, air, and human health problems around Bhopal. They also document how Union Carbide has avoided being brought to justice over these years.

We here at the World's Fair alluded to these problems a few years ago. In fact, I discuss this case in my environmental and engineering ethics course, where students have the chance to read all sides of the situation to gather their own sense of how the events played out, how they were responded to, and how we got here. Compare, for example, the view at Bhopal.con to the word at Bhopal.com.

Even more in line with the science blogs crowd, check out a current discussion about Bhopal with Henrik Selin, a professor of international relations and an expert in global hazardous chemical regulations at Boston U. It's with PRI and The World, and coordinated by Sigma Xi. (Here is the mp3 file of the interview, for downloading.)

They prompt the discussion with a few questions:

  • Has the U.S. unfairly exported its toxic risks to other countries?
  • Selin says the World Trade Organization helps regulate the safety of products but not processes. Should that change?
  • How can you ensure that the holiday gifts you buy don't come from unsafe factories?

But you can listen to the interview and add in your own questions at the site. Selin will be taking part throughout the week.

The intriguing part for me is to gauge cross-cultural interpretations of the event and the response to it. Well, plus the other intriguing part is to see this as an issue not just of environmental injustice, but of the corporate framing of the disaster, of how legal and financial mechanisms come to substitute for environmental, public health, and fundamentally moral ones.

In brief:

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The tactics of Dow/UC are the same as that of Exxon with regards to the Exxon Valdez spill. Delay, deny and obfuscate until all the original victims are dead.