SAN FRANCISCO -- Twenty years ago this week, an explosion at a Union Carbide chemical factory sent 27 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate wafting over the slumbering residents of Bhopal, India.
The aftermath was apocalyptic. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people died in the three days after the explosion and 15,000 more have died since, according to a study by Amnesty International. Another 100,000 people still suffer chronic diseases of the lungs, eyes and blood, and a new generation endures an epidemic of infertility and grotesque birth defects. Bhopal thus ranks as the single deadliest industrial disaster of the modern environmental era.
Perhaps the most extraordinary fact about Bhopal is that no one has faced trial for what happened that night. Even though Union Carbide's own safety experts had warned two years before of a "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials," the managers of the Bhopal factory had no system in place to warn and evacuate residents in the event of an emergency. Yet corporate officials have never answered in court for their actions.
Such evasion of legal accountability would be inconceivable if the disaster had occurred in the United States or Europe. Had the victims been affluent Westerners rather than impoverished Indians, they would have had their day in court long ago.
Bhopal survivors like Rashida Bee, who was a 28-year-old housewife at the time of the explosion, have never stopped pressing their demands for a proper trial, appropriate compensation for victims and sufficient medical, economic and environmental rehabilitation for survivors. And now they have gained new allies. In April, Bee and fellow survivor-turned-activist Champa Devi Shukla won the Goldman Prize, the biggest environmental award given in the United States. This week, Amnesty International has endorsed the activists' key demands as part of its first major campaign targeting a corporation for allegedly violating the right to a healthy environment.
Nevertheless, Union Carbide and its new corporate parent, Dow Chemical, continue to insist they have no further obligations to the people of Bhopal.
India's courts have tried to pursue justice for Bhopal, but they have been thwarted. In 1991, an Indian court ordered Union Carbide officials, including Warren Anderson, the chief executive at the time of the disaster, to face criminal charges. After Anderson and the other defendants failed to appear, India's Supreme Court named them "proclaimed absconders" - that is, fugitives from justice - and pressed for their extradition. After sitting on the extradition request for years, the U.S. State Department refused it without explanation in September 2004.
The case is complicated by the fact that Dow Chemical bought all shares of Union Carbide in 2001 yet denies any legal responsibility for Carbide's past actions. This novel legal theory may be tested. Nitynand Jayaraman of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal says that activists plan to press India to include Dow Chemical in the outstanding criminal case against Union Carbide; the government could then attach Dow's assets if it refuses to appear in court.
A further complication is that Union Carbide did pay $470 million to the government of India in 1989 to settle all claims related to Bhopal. But the $470 million figure was based on now-discredited estimates that only 3,000 people died at Bhopal. What's more, says Bee, "Carbide made that settlement with the government, not with the people affected. We don't accept it." And $330 million of the settlement money has been tied up in legal wrangling instead of reaching victims. When India's Supreme Court ordered in July that the $330 million be distributed forthwith, activists appealed the ruling, arguing that victims deserve four times that much.
Whatever the exact compensation owed, it's clear the people of Bhopal have been terribly mistreated. First they were left defenseless against a predictable disaster; then they were given a legal run-around instead of just compensation for their suffering. There are many shades of gray in life, but sometimes the truth is black and white: It is shameful for Dow/Union Carbide to keep ducking its obligations in Bhopal and shameful for the State Department to help it do so. Doing the right thing - standing trial - may end up costing Dow financially, but continuing to stonewall could blacken its reputation forever.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of ‘‘Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future..
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