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Global Justice and Inequity: Lessons Learned from Bhopal and BP Horizon Deepwater
by Newropeans-Magazine
2010-08-28 08:49:00
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Bhopal and BP Horizon Deepwater Background

Almost 26 years ago, on the night of 3rd December 1984, Bhopal (India) was enveloped in a poisonous miasmic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas, which gushed forth from the Union Carbide chemical plant. An estimated 4,000 people lost their lives immediately with a further 300,000 of Bhopal´s 800,000 inhabitants injured as a result of this disaster. 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 dragged them under as they fled the invisible gases. A 2004 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 surrounding soil and waters. Contaminated by Union Carbide’s chemical 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.

Despite the well-documented death, destruction and misery, caused by this disaster, the people of Bhopal still await adequate compensation some 25 years later as well as assistance in cleaning up the chemical wastes. Furthermore, those primarily responsible have managed to avoid being brought to account. While seven local officials have recently been found guilty of their role in the Bhopal disaster, they were sentenced to only two years in prison and a US$2,100 fine each – roughly the same as a fine for a car accident in India. At the same time, the far more culpable US executives have escaped scot free.

Indeed, not only were the US executives not pursued, their flight from justice was aided and abetted by the high level Indian administrative and government officials. 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, to clarify his legal responsibility with respect to the disaster. Today, in his early 90s, Anderson, enjoys a pleasant and comfortable retirement in Florida. One hopes 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 53,000 barrels of oil that were pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico just before it was capped – resulted in 11 direct fatalities and 17 injuries. It also caused untold damage to the marine and wildlife habitat as well as the local fishing and tourist industries.

Similarities and Differences

In both the Bhopal and Horizon Deepwater disasters, the companies were received adequate warning 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 and signed by Warren Anderson himself, highlighted that Bhopal´s technology was "unproven." Similarly, during a 1982 safety review Union Carbide´s own experts emphasised the serious risk of substantial leaks of “toxic materials" at Bhopal. BP too received adequate warning of impending problems. Several internal investigations notified senior BP managers that the safety and environmental rules at Deepwater Horizon were regularly being flouted.

In the immediate aftermath of both disasters, BP and Union Carbide tried to downplay the serious consequences of both disasters. BP´s Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, tried to pacify the anxious US East Coast public by claiming that the oil leak would be relatively inconsequential and not have a major impact on the environment. In the case of Bhopal, Union Carbide´s public relations people went as far as asserting that methyl isocyanate was not poisonous but just resembled a strong tear gas.

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 protected Anderson has been all too willing to line up to declaim the role of BP and particularly Hayward both in allowing the Horizon Deepwater industrial accident to happen and its response to the disaster. There has been a ready supply of public figures willing to take pot shots at BP and Hayward. Obama has been at the forefront, openly declaring his desire to find a BP ass 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 leaders had reacted similarly to Bhopal. Let us not forget that for every human life lost at BP Horizon Deepwater, 2,000 Indians 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. Union Carbide, particularly in the North (Northern Hemisphere), was never subjected to the same public opprobrium and fury as BP.

As the best-selling Chetan Bhagat author highlighted: 

"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 1989 settlement of US$470 million paid to the Indian government adequately settled the Bhopal compensation issue. However, there are several reasons to reject this claim. It was based on a discredited under-estimation of only 3,000 fatalities at Bhopal. In fact, when the total of those who lost their life as well as been injured is taken into account, this US$470 million would have to be divided amongst some 574,367 victims. This would result in an average compensation amount of just over US$800 per person. In addition, the clean-up of the lands and waters around Bhopal would need to be covered by this sum. Moreover, 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 BP. 

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 Carbide\Dow Chemicals are perceived to be getting away lightly with respect to disasters they have caused, it risks creating a feeling of corporate invulnerability. Large transnational corporations in particular might feel they are immune to prosecution or liability for their actions, particularly in the South (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 the Supreme Court Lawyer Prashant Bhushan points out, it would appear that we have learnt nothing from Bhopal. 25 years on and the “drive to attract foreign investment [overwhelms] all other considerations.”

In effect, 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´.

 Justin Frewen*
Galway, Ireland

*Justin Frewen has worked as a Consultant with the UN since 1997 and is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Galway, Ireland.


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