The Lessons of Bhopal and BP Horizon Deepwater

, , Comment closed

1 Flares Twitter 1 Facebook 0 1 Flares ×
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

It will soon be 26 years since the people of Bhopal were enveloped in a poisonous miasmic cloud of gas, which gushed forth from the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. On that night of the 3rd of December, 1984, an estimated 4,000 people lost their lives immediately with a further 300,000 of Bhopal´s 800,000 inhabitants injured. The people of Bhopal received no warning before the choking, toxic fumes descended upon them out of the dark night. The plant´s safety systems did not work and no alarm was given. Some of the victims died directly from the poisonous fumes while others lay in the streets submerged beneath the tidal panic that rose up to drag them under as they fled the invisible gases. By 2004, an Amnesty report calculated that the total death toll had risen to 22,000.

This disaster has had a devastating legacy on Bhopal. One that lives on in the soil and waters all around Bhopal. Contaminated by Union Carbide’s waste, the earth is host to chemicals, which have become associated with a significant source of genetic deformities, cancer and congenital health problems, as well as resulting in painful premature fatalities amongst those living in the region. However, just as those responsible for spraying Agent Orange in Viet Nam have refused to assist in any clean-up, so too has Union Carbide (now under new management, that of Dow Chemicals) failed to help remove the chemical residues polluting the region.

Despite the well-documented death, destruction and misery, caused by the Union Carbide `accident´, the people of Bhopal still await adequate compensation some 25 years later. Furthermore, those primarily responsible have managed to escape without being brought to account. It was only in the past few months that seven local Indian officials were found guilty of their role in the Bhopal disaster. However, while they were sentenced to two years in prison and a US$2,100 fine each – roughly the same as a fine for a car accident in India – the far more culpable US executives have escaped scot free.

Indeed, not only were the US executives not pursued, their flight from justice was even aided and abetted by the highest levels of the Indian government. When Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide at the time, was visiting India in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, his rapid exit from the country was facilitated lest some `overzealous´ officials might see fit to try and detain him. Since then, Anderson has been protected by the US business and political community who have been active in helping him fend off any potential calls for extradition to India, where his legal responsibility with respect to the disaster might be clarified. Today, in his early 90s, Anderson, is able to enjoy a pleasant and comfortable retirement in Florida. One hopes that the recent BP Horizon Deepwater industrial accident has not incommoded him too greatly in his twilight years.

Coming some quarter of a century after the Bhopal disaster, the BP Horizon Deepwater environmental disaster is the latest in a long line of industrial accidents which have become all too regular a feature of the industrial landscape.  The BP gush – `leak´ is a ridiculous understatement for the estimated 53,000 barrels of oil that were pouring out daily into the Gulf of Mexico just before it was capped – resulted in 11 direct fatalities and 17 injuries. It has also caused untold damage to the marine and wildlife habitat as well as the local fishing and tourist industries.

In both the Bhopal and Horizon Deepwater disasters, the companies were given clear indication that unless they mended their ways and introduced safer working practices and procedures, disaster lay ahead. A 1973 Union Carbide report, over 10 years before the actual catastrophe, signed by the Union Carbide Chairperson Warren Anderson himself, highlighted that Bhopal´s technology was “unproven.” Similarly, Union Carbide´s own experts emphasised the serious risk of substantial leaks of “toxic materials” at Bhopal in a 1982 safety review.  BP too received adequate warning of impending problems. Several internal investigations notified senior managers at BP that the safety and environmental rules at Horizon Deepwater were regularly being flouted.

BP and Union Carbide also tried to downplay the serious consequences of their corporate malpractice in the immediate aftermath of the disasters. Tony Hayward, the Chief Executive of BP, tried to pacify the anxious US East Coast public by claiming the oil leak was relatively inconsequential and would not have any major impact on the region or the environment. In the case of Bhopal, Union Carbide´s public relations people even went as far as asserting that methyl isocyanate was not poisonous but in fact resembled a strong tear gas in terms of its effects.

However, there  has been one major difference in these two cases. BP has generally experienced a far rougher ride than Union Carbide. The same political-business community in the US that has protected Anderson from a potential Indian trial or litigation has been all too willing to line up to declaim the role of BP and particularly Hayward in allowing the Horizon Deepwater industrial accident to happen. There has been a ready supply of public figures willing to take pot shots at BP and Hayward. Obama has been at the forefront of the mob, openly declaring his longing to find a BP ass that he could kick as well as his intention to keep his “boot on BP´s throat.” While the indignation of the US public, led by its political and business cheerleaders can well be understood, one can only wonder what the reaction would have been if the Indian government and business community had reacted similarly to Bhopal. And let us not forget that for every human life lost at Horizon Deepwater, 2,000 Indians at least have lost theirs as a result of Bhopal.

While it is hard to disagree with Sainath´s observation that “Barack Obama’s ‘hard words’ on BP are mostly pre-November poll-rants”, there is still a clear difference in the manner in which both companies have been treated. The fact is that Union Carbide, particularly in the North (Northern Hemisphere) have never been subjected to the same public opprobrium and fury as BP, despite the consequences of their actions at Bhopal.

As the best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat has argued:

“It looks like Indian children’s lives are cheaper than [those of] fish. Obama should bang his fist on the table. If he can do that for fish, how about our kids? Or are they only Indians?”

The current owners of Union Carbide, Dow Chemicals, have consistently maintained that the US$470 million paid in 1989 to the Indian government in 1989 was adequate settled the Bhopal compensation issue. However, there are several reasons to reject this claim. Firstly, it was based on a discredited under-estimation of only 3,000 fatalities at Bhopal. Furthermore, when one adds on the over half a million people who have been maimed or injured as a result of Bhopal, one is left with this figure of US$470 million being divided amongst some 574,367 victims, resulting in an average compensation amount of only just over US$800 per person. In addition, there is also the environmental damage and the required clean-up of the lands and waters around Bhopal, which would need to be covered by this sum. Finally, the Indian government did not even consult with the people of Bhopal regarding the settlement. Instead, they unilaterally decided to act as their representative in these negotiations.

On the other hand, BP were forced by the Obama administration to establish a US$20 billion compensation fund, on the basis of their role in Horizon Deepwater.

What Can Be Done?
The Bhopal and BP disasters contain a number of lessons for people everywhere, particularly those working to promote global justice. When companies such as Union CarbideDow Chemicals are perceived to be able to get away lightly with respect to disasters they have caused, it creates a feeling of corporate invulnerability whereby large companies may believe they are immune to prosecution or liability for their actions, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

Corporate wrongdoers and malfeasants must be held fully accountable, both in terms of financial responsibility as well as for the actions of their executives. In this respect, the efforts on the part of the Indian government to attract foreign investment in its growing nuclear energy market by passing a bill to limit the maximum liability of nuclear plant operators at US$111 million, is a serious concern. As Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court Lawyer, explains it would appear that Bhopal has taught us nothing. Here we are 25 years later and the “drive to attract foreign investment [overwhelms] all other considerations.” Nothing less than a transparent and easily enforceable framework of international sanctions and penalties will suffice if we are to ensure that corporations are made accountable in the future, irrespective of their provenance or the location of the `industrial accidents´.