PANNA: The 21st Anniversary of the Bhopal Pesticide Plant Explosion
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December 3rd marks the 21st anniversary of the deadly gas leak from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that took more than 15,000 lives. Today, former CEO Warren Anderson is a fugitive from the law. Wanted on charges of manslaughter, he has students, nuns, investors, and an enraged fisherwoman from Texas demanding accountability.
Anderson was the CEO of Union Carbide in 1984 when its poorly maintained pesticide factory exploded in Bhopal, filling the streets of the city with toxic clouds of methyl isocyanate gas. "In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids," the Bhopal Medical Appeal reported. The Indian government charged Anderson and Union Carbide with manslaughter for killing 15,000 people, and claimed damages for injuries to 100,000 more. Union Carbide is now a fully owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW).
Twenty one years after the explosion, Anderson has yet to appear for his criminal trial in India. Meanwhile, the citizens of Bhopal who survived that ghoulish night continue to die not only from the long-term effects of continuing contamination, but also from the poverty that comes from being too sick to support a family. Survivors of the Bhopal gas leak are demanding that Anderson and Dow face trial, clean up the toxic site, pay for medical treatment and compensation for illnesses, and provide economic rehabilitation for those whose ability to work has been affected.
At the heart of Dow and Anderson's impunity is the question of who is responsible for keeping corporations accountable to the law. When individuals harm other people, society protects itself by sending them to jail. Corporations are capable of inflicting harm on a much greater scale than any one individual could -- and yet public institutions are failing to protect society from corporate crime. Warren Anderson may be a fugitive, but he has the U.S. government on his side. A freedom of information act request in 2004 revealed that the U.S. State Department denied India's extradition order after the U.S. Department of Commerce joined Union Carbide in pleading on Anderson's behalf.
As governments fail to protect society from corporate crimes, citizen groups are stepping into the gap to demand justice. The international student network Students for Bhopal is marking the 21st anniversary of the disaster by delivering life-sized of posters of Bhopal survivors to Dow Chemical board members, Dow facilities, and university administrators who accept funding from the corporation. Captioned, "Torture Me", the posters tell the stories of people like Mehboob Bi, a widow who lost her husband to gas poisoning and then had her house seized by moneylenders. When her daughters were small and she had nothing to feed them, Mehboob Bi used to give them water at night to fill their stomachs, not knowing it was unsafe. "Afterwards I came to know that in many places the well water has been poisoned by that factory, the same cursed place that tried to kill us all with gas," she states.
Dow Chemical shareholders are also voicing concerns regarding the company's failure to address Bhopal chemical disaster. In November 2005, The New York State Common Retirement Fund, the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, Amnesty International USA, Boston Common Asset Management, and Sisters of Mercy Regional Community of Detroit Charitable Trust filed a shareholder resolution requesting that Dow Chemical disclose the true financial impact of the Bhopal survivors' outstanding social and environmental concerns. Proponents of this resolution collectively hold more than 4.5 million shares worth over $190 million.
Ordinary people who have suffered from Dow's pollution in United States are recognizing that they have a tangible common bond with the Bhopal survivors. Diane Wilson, a mother of five, captained a shrimp boat off the coast of Seadrift, Texas for years until she noticed that her friends were getting cancer and the shrimp she depended on were dying. When she found out that a Dow Chemical plant was dumping lethal ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride into her beloved bays, Wilson launched herself on a mission to stop Dow's malfeasance. Recognizing her community's bond with others harmed by Dow, Wilson forged an alliance with the survivors in Bhopal. After fasting and holding vigil at the Dow plant in Seadrift, she was arrested for hanging a banner declaring "Dow Responsible for Bhopal" and chaining herself to a tower in her local Dow factory.
A Texas court recently charged Wilson with a minor misdemeanor and several months in jail, but instead of showing up for her sentence, she took off in search of Warren Anderson. "This company has warrants after 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 decried.
Wilson isn't alone in feeling affinity with the Bhopal survivors due to exposure to toxic chemicals. While the Bhopal gas explosion is notorious as the worst industrial disaster in history, chemicals produced by Dow are also lodged in the bodies of almost every person on the planet. For example, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control found that over 75% of people they tested carried breakdown products of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic pesticide. PANNA has calculated that Dow Chemical is responsible for at least 80% of all chlorpyrifos production.
It is time to end corporate impunity for horrifying corporate crimes like the Bhopal disaster, and for Warren Anderson and Dow Chemical to face justice. It is also time that we recognize that day-to-day pesticide use exposes us all to danger, like a Bhopal disaster in slow motion.
Sources: International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal: http://www.bhopal.net/, Students for Bhopal: http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/, Dow Accountability Network: http://www.thetruthaboutdow.org/,Wilson, Diane. 2005. An Unreasonable Woman . Chelsea Green Publishing: http://www.chelseagreen.com/2005/items/unreasonablewoman