Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Courts Take Aim at Dow for Bhopal
Two recent court decisions have raised the hopes of Bhopal survivors and may impose liability on Union Carbide and its owner, Dow Chemical for continuing environmental contamination at Bhopal. Both companies have stressed since their merger in 2001 that no liabilities remain from the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster, but within the past two weeks courts in the United States and in India have indicated they may rule otherwise.
In 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas into neighboring communities, killing an estimated 8,000 people and injuring more than half a million, according to the Indian Council for Medical Research. Thousands have died from gas-related causes since the accident.
On the night of the explosion, the plant’s safety systems were inadequate, malfunctioning or shut down. In 1989 Union Carbide, the plant’s operator, agreed to an out of court settlement of $470 million, which amounted to less than $500 for most survivors. The funds turned out to be far short for covering medical costs of illnesses that are now appearing in successive generations. Also, the factory site has never been cleaned up; the 5,000 tons of toxic wastes abandoned there by Union Carbide contaminate the drinking water of tens of thousands and have been found in the breast milk of resident nursing mothers.
In 1999 survivors’ organizations filed a lawsuit in U.S. courts to force Union Carbide to cleanup the site, but it wasn’t until March of 2004 that the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled a lower court could hold Union Carbide liable for cleanup. However, the Court ruling required the Indian government to send a letter to the U.S. court stating it had “no objection.” to a ruling for cleanup. The deadline set by the court for receipt of this letter was June 30, 2004.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) (which includes PANNA) the Association for India’s Development (AID), and Greenpeace launched a lobbying effort that deluged the Indian government with thousands of faxes, phone calls, emails and petitions, and more than 300 people around the world joined a hunger strike led by Bhopal survivors in New Delhi. On June 23rd the Indian government finally bowed to pressure and the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers announced a “no objection” would be sent to the U.S. court.
Also in June in a second court case, the Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate ordered the Indian branch of Dow Chemical to appear in court to show why it shouldn’t be held responsible for producing Union Carbide, which is facing criminal charges of manslaughter and is wanted by the court. The Magistrate also ordered the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation to report by July 19th on its efforts to extradite Carbide’s former CEO Warren Anderson on similar charges.
“This is the first step in putting Dow in the dock [on trial] for sheltering Union Carbide from criminal liabilities,” said Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “The direction taken by the court is indicative of its intent to resolve the long-pending criminal charges by forcing Union Carbide to face trial.”
When Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide in 2001, merger documents filed with the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission never disclosed that criminal charges were pending against Union Carbide in India. At the May 2004 Annual General Meeting, Dow CEO William Stavropoulos told stockholders, “There was a 1989 settlement that resolved all civil, criminal charges … so, from our viewpoint, all responsibility from the tragedy that occurred, and it was a horrific tragedy — unbelievably horrific tragedy — has been resolved.” In June 2003, 18 U.S. congressional representatives wrote to Stavropoulos calling Dow and Carbide’s continued avoidance of the pending criminal liabilities in Bhopal as a “blatant disregard for the law.”
Sources: Detroit Free Press, June 23, 2004; Midland Daily News, June 17; PANUPS, May 21, 2004; PANNA Corporate Profile: Dow Chemical Company, http://www.panna.org/campaigns/caia/corpProfilesDow.dv.html.
Contact: International Campaign for Justice at Bhopal, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: (011) 91 442 446-2401.
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