mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Bhopal’s Legacy

Every December for the past nineteen years, marchers in Bhopal, India,
have paraded an effigy of Warren Anderson through town and burned it.
Anderson is despised because he was the CEO of Union Carbide on
December 3, 1984, when an explosion at the company’s Bhopal factory
leaked deadly methyl isocyanate gas over the city’s shantytowns in the
worst industrial disaster in history. The exact death toll will never
be known-many corpses were disposed of in emergency mass burials or
cremations without adequate documentation-but the Indian government
now puts the total at more than 22,000 and climbing. Now, as the
disaster’s twentieth anniversary approaches, Bhopal is back in the
news.

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On April 19 two advocates for the disaster’s survivors won the most
prestigious environmental award given in the United States. In her
acceptance speech at the annual Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony
in San Francisco, Rashida Bee confessed that she and colleague Champa
Devi Shukla initially assumed they had been selected by mistake. We
knew a few individuals who had won awards, she explained, [but] they
were all educated people, spoke English and had e-mail accounts.

One a Muslim and the other a Hindu, Bee and Shukla are leading the
fight to hold Union Carbide and its new owner, Dow Chemical,
accountable for the Bhopal disaster, which the two women assert is
still killing and injuring thousands of people a year through poisoned
groundwater. The gas disaster was sudden, one night, but the last
twenty years have also been miserable, Shukla said in an interview.
People still have pain and breathlessness, and now we are seeing
cancers too. There is mental and physical retardation among children.
Many women are sterile or never begin menstruating, so men don’t want
to marry them. A 1999 study commissioned by Greenpeace International
but conducted by independent scientists concluded that Bhopal’s
groundwater contains heavy metals, volatile chemicals and levels of
mercury millions of times higher than is considered safe.

Neither Union Carbide nor Dow has ever faced trial for Bhopal-an
inconceivable result, activists charge, had the disaster occurred in
the United States or Europe. Union Carbide instead reached a $470
million settlement with the Indian government in 1989, based on
now-discredited estimates that only 3,000 people died and only 100,000
were affected. Upon review of the settlement, an Indian court
reinstated criminal charges against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson
in 1991. When neither the corporation nor Anderson showed up for
trial, they were declared fugitives from justice. The Indian
government is now seeking their extradition, but Washington has not
honored the request. Meanwhile, Dow, which purchased all outstanding
shares of Union Carbide in 1999, refuses to accept the company’s
alleged Bhopal liabilities. Dow remains firm in its position that in
acquiring the shares of Union Carbide it acquired no new liability,
John Musser, a Dow spokesman, wrote in an e-mail interview.

So Bee and Shukla are touring the United States, using the prestige of
the Goldman prize to press their case. On May 13 they’ll confront Dow
officials at a shareholders meeting in Midland, Michigan. They demand
that Union Carbide/Dow appear at trial in India, pay for survivors’
healthcare and economic rehabilitation and help restore Bhopal’s
environment. They reject the suggestion that the $470 million
settlement discharged the company’s obligations. Union Carbide made
that settlement with the government, not with the people affected,
says Rashida Bee. Not a single victim was consulted.

Battling the world’s biggest chemical corporation is a far cry from
the humble beginnings of the two activists. Bee was illiterate and
knew nothing of the outside world when, at age 28, she experienced the
disaster. It killed seven members of her extended family and left her
husband too ill to continue his work as a tailor. Shukla lost her
husband and two sons. A daughter later suffered three miscarriages, a
grandson died and a granddaughter was born with a cleft lip and a
missing palate.

Bee and Shukla consistently refer to what happened in Bhopal as a
crime rather than an accident. It was Warren Anderson’s criminal
negligence and insistence on cost-cutting that caused this disaster,
says Bee. Internal Union Carbide documents, released in 2002 during
the discovery phase of a civil lawsuit against the company, seem to
support her contention. A 1973 document, signed by Anderson himself,
notes that the technology to be used in the Bhopal factory was
unproven. A safety review conducted by Union Carbide experts in 1982
warned of a serious potential for sizable releases of toxic
materials at the factory. Dow spokesman John Musser confirmed the
existence of the 1982 study but asserted, None of the issues [it]
raised would have had an impact on the fatal gas leak and all of the
issues had been addressed by the plant well before the December 1984
disaster. The real culprit, the company insists, was sabotage. Musser
further notes that it was the Indian government that declared itself
the sole representative of Bhopal’s victims before the 1989
settlement. Nor are allegations of groundwater contamination true, he
said, citing studies in the late 1990s by local and federal government
agencies in India.

They have their studies, we have ours, so let’s go to court and let a
judge decide who’s right, said Gary Cohen, the director of the
Environmental Health Fund in Boston. Cohen has little hope that the
Bush Administration will extradite Anderson or current Union
Carbide/Dow officials. But, he says, Dow wants to expand in India,
and we’re going to make that very difficult by raising questions
about the trustworthiness of a corporation that refuses to heed a
court summons. Nityanand Jayaraman of the International Campaign for
Justice in Bhopal says activists plan to press the Indian government
to include Dow, not just Union Carbide, in the current criminal case;
the government could then attach Dow’s assets if it refuses to appear
in court.

For their part, Rashida Bee and Champa Shukla hope to pursue justice
face-to-face by tracking down Warren Anderson during their US tour.
Shukla says that if we see him, we will ask, If you are innocent, why
are you hiding and not answering questions about what happened in
Bhopal?

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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